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Underage sex trafficking is everywhere local law enforcement looks, but will their budgets hold out?

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While an omnibus bill pushed by state Senator Van de Putte in the last legislative session dolls out harsher penalties to child traffickers, Ambrosino says state law still pales to the severity, and clarity, of federal statute. Child victims of sexual exploitation can also be hard to identify because they don't always come forward. Ambrosino insists homeless teens or runaways selling sex in exchange for shelter or food, so-called "survival sex," often go unnoticed. In an attempt to crack down on those soliciting sex, Van de Putte's bill laid out harsher penalties for johns caught with minors, bumping the highest penalty from a state jail felony to a first degree felony. "It doesn't matter anymore if we can prove they knew the girl was a child," Van de Putte said.

Alfonso Garcia does HIV outreach with the local nonprofit We Are Alive. Starting five years ago he began running across young men, often juveniles, gathering outside local gay bars and in parks selling sex to survive. Most he interviewed said they started out as young boys after being thrown out of their homes for being gay. "One had been doing it since he was a child, like 10 years old. They're forced to live like that at such a young age," Garcia said. "Their self-esteem is so battered by the time they've [turned 18] they just think this is what you do to survive. And most people just write them off as criminals."

Ambrosino has his own views as to the local causes. In parts of town long battling gang activity and drug abuse, cases largely followed a pattern involving intergenerational domestic violence, child abuse, and heroin or crack addiction. It also goes back to how society, as a whole views children, he says, and pervasive infantilism — what Ambrosino calls "the unending search for the virgin." It's a concept reinforced by our advertising-drenched culture that runs heavy on photos of women made up to look young and innocent.

For those paying attention, child sex trafficking is easier to find in local headlines. Former Spurs guard Alvin Robertson is set to go to trial next month on charges that he forced a 14-year-old San Antonio runaway into stripping and prostitution. Last October, police charged Kwaiku Agyn with forcing a 16-year-old runaway into prostitution. The same week, police accused a woman of selling off her teenage daughter for three years to support her own cocaine habit.

"Debbie" tells an increasingly familiar story. Her parents divorced when she was five years old. Her mother, a heroin addict who wasn't making enough cash to support the habit, began selling her by the time she was 6. At first the mother would only let men molest and fondle her. "I'd be in pain and I would start to cry," she recalls. "So she injected me with heroin at the age of six." By the time she turned 8, the mother started letting men have sex with her.

At 11, Debbie got pregnant. Though child protection workers questioned the mother, she lied, saying Debbie had become pregnant when she ran away from home.

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