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April 23, 2014

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

On any given day, the 19-year-old takes to the streets, turning tricks for cash to feed her heroin habit. She's long bounced between sex work, jail, and unsuccessful stints in treatment.

Melissa Lujan, an HIV and AIDS outreach worker who makes her rounds delivering condoms and bleach kits to the city's call girls, says the girl's a wreck: doped up and difficult. "She's only 19 years old now and she's absolutely a mess. A complete mess," Lujan says as we drive through the city's West Side.

Lujan says she's put out calls to clinics and shelters across the city to see where she might be able to place her if she is ever willing to accept help. "All the response I got was, 'Oh, we know her. She's a very difficult client. Good luck.' Then, click."

Driving across the city, Lujan sighs with every sex worker she spots. If the 19-year-old is difficult, it's no wonder. Lujan says the girl was forced into sex work as a child by a mother who sold her to neighborhood men to feed her own addiction. The girl contracted HIV and hepatitis C by the time she was 13. "You hear the same thing again and again: gang affiliated, mom's an addict, father's an addict, parents were incarcerated," Lujan says. "We view these girls as just your average prostitutes now."

With a concerted push from state lawmakers over the past three years, led largely by San Antonio's Democratic state Senator Leticia Van de Putte, "trafficking" has become a buzzword of sorts in Texas. With the inaugural meeting of the statewide task force in 2010 and a U.S. Department of Justice-funded Bexar County trafficking task force, officials warned of waves of foreign nationals being hustled across the border and into Texas strip clubs, tea houses, and massage parlors, "stables" of women sold like cattle by heartless pimps (See "Land of the lost," June 16, 2009). Lately, however, their focus has turned closer to home: to local kids bought and sold for sex right under our noses, be it runaways turning tricks to survive or teens kept in line by pimps employing violence and drug addiction. "It should shake you to the core to think that modern day slavery is happening here in our community, in our state," Van de Putte told the Current. Local officials and advocates say they've begun to unravel cases involving young victims that the system should have caught much earlier. Many local children, they fear, continue to be labeled as habitual truants, delinquents, or runaways rather than identified as victims of abuse that are simply trying to survive.

Even in the cases of the only two successful prosecutions of child sex traffickers by the Bexar County District Attorney's Office the teenage girls were rescued not by police department stings or high-profile takedowns but by a juvenile probation officer finally asking the right questions of kids stuck in lockup on unrelated charges. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have known how to go about identifying someone who's a victim of domestic minor sex trafficking," said John Moran, head of the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department's gang supervision program. "Now we know they were there, in our system, but we just didn't realize it."

In 2009, Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department, prodded by the task force, implemented a new, more comprehensive screening process for juvenile defendants: a series of more probing questions about the child's exposure to sex and violence. Moran was stunned by the results. So far, about 90 minors in the system have been flagged — all, he said, showing the warning signs of a trafficked or sexually exploited child. Since they began the more comprehensive screenings, the department's confirmed and sent 22 cases to local law enforcement for further investigation and possible prosecution. One, Moran says, was a girl who ran away at 15 after being sexually abused by her father. She hooked up with a group of adult men who, in time, became her pimps, moving city to city selling the girl to johns. When pressed, some of the children even began to divulge information on detailed ledgers tracking the johns and the cash, Moran says. "That indicates to me that there were ongoing clients for some of these kids."

But while the local task force brought increased awareness, education and training, the resources that made them possible are already collapsing.

"I'm exhausted, my referral resources are exhausted. And that applies to virtually every agency in Texas," Lujan said. "What's it matter if I find these girls on the street if there's nowhere I can take them?"

Last year, Bexar County lost the $1 million federal grant that had funded the task force. A last-minute infusion of $200,000 from a state grant is keeping the unit — and its two full-time investigators who handle about 50 cases annually — afloat through most of 2012. It won't even come close to covering the victim services funded in the past, however.

The half-million-dollar grant enabling Project Carinó at the Center for Health Care Services, a program providing intensive substance abuse and mental health counseling for local women, most of whom were sold for sex as children, may also phase out this year, according to program director Briseida Courtois. And the area's only specialized shelter for domestic trafficking victims, Embassy of Hope, closed last May after private donations dried up and Director Elizabeth Crooks was unable to secure grant funding.

Meanwhile, two forces on the front lines of the fight against child exploitation, public schools and Child Protective Services, have been drastically impacted by state funding cuts, points out Chris Burchell, a former sheriff's department investigator who handled Bexar County's first child sex trafficking cases before founding the nonprofit Texas Anti-Trafficking in Persons. As the school took a multi-billion-dollar hit, the Center for Public Policy Priorities estimates Child Protective Services' 2012-2013 budget is 10 percent below what the agency said it needed to manage its existing case load. Lawmakers specifically cut child abuse and neglect prevention programs by 44 percent.

Van de Putte often recalls the case of a 16-year-old runaway from Oregon who was arrested in South Texas on drug possession and prostitution charges. Repeat hospitalizations and severe health problems brought him to San Antonio for medical care. In 2006, Van de Putte got a call from a worried doctor at University Health Science Center. "I remember the physician telling me, 'I really just don't think this child could have endured these types of injuries willingly,'" she said. The boy, malnourished, showed signs of chronic abuse and had internal injuries so severe that his bowel had to be surgically re-sectioned. When authorities looked closer, they found the boy had been doped up and forced to have sex with as many as 10 men a day. The pimp threatened to kill the boy's younger sister if he didn't do as he was told.

The next year, Van de Putte pushed for the state to mandate sex-trafficking training for all law-enforcement officers, something the law-enforcement community balked at. "The response was just, 'Oh, these kids are just prostituting themselves for drugs.' Amazingly at that time law enforcement just did not have that sensitivity," she said. Her bill failed, but lawmakers ordered the attorney general's office and the Texas Health & Human Services Commission to study human trafficking in the state — both international and domestic. The report zeroed in on law enforcement's failure to identify and assist minor victims. By 2009, Van de Putte pushed for and got the first state-level legislation to assist domestic victims by training law enforcement and creating the statewide Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force.

With two successes now under its belt, the Bexar County DA's office is slated to try two more high-profile child sex trafficking cases this spring. And officials expect even more coming down the pike. Kirsta Melton, a family violence prosecutor in the DA's office who started handling the county's trafficking cases in 2008, says she's seen nine victims so far, all young girls, and hopes to prosecute some 40 defendants. "My gut tells me there's a sub-population of kids like this in San Antonio that are just under the radar," she said. One of the successful prosecutions involved a victim born to a heroin-addict mother on San Antonio's Westside. The child got her start in a dumpster. According to her grandmother, the mother threw the child away when she was born and extended family literally had to fish her out of the trash. The mother would later die of an overdose; the father molested her. After she ran away from home at age 11, she met Elizabeth Delgado, a downtown San Antonio prostitute, according to prosecutors. For the first few days, Delgado helped care for and feed the girl, but then she told the girl she had to pull her weight. She taught her how to start turning tricks. After a few months taking "clients," the girl ran away again, only to bounce in and out of foster care and juvie. By the age of 15, she stumbled across Julian Maldonado, a reported Mexican Mafia member on the Westside who began pimping her out to neighborhood johns. Maldonado started feeding the girl drugs to keep her placid, according to attorney Melton, who prosecuted the case.

While the details of her abuse are disturbing, so is how the case was ultimately caught.

After Maldonado forced her to sleep with an elderly man, a john in his late 60s, the girl fought back. She ran from a Westside motel room with the man's pants and wallet. When Edgewood School District police found her, they arrested her for theft and locked her up. "When we went back and looked we couldn't believe it," Burchell said. "It was book her, then slammer. She just went through the system. No one was paying attention."

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It was only in juvie that the girl finally got treatment for her drug addiction, learned she had HIV and hepatitis C, and slowly began to divulge the details of her abuse to a therapist. Seven years after the child was first coerced into the sex trade, her pimp Maldonado pleaded no contest in May of 2011 in exchange for a 10-year sentence.

At a conference with local health care providers in January, Miriam Elizondo, vice president of client services at Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio, said a central problem is that victims are slow to self-report. Typically, she said, fewer than one percent of the Center's clients identify themselves as trafficking victims. And when the Center took to reviewing its cases, Elizondo says they were shocked to find how many children were being classified as sexual assault or child abuse victims when they could have been trafficking cases. "It's crucial we identify these cases," she said. "There are significant long-term needs involved."

Some clients, she said, come in unable to speak, contemplating suicide or have already attempted suicide.

Melton's other successful prosecution is the highly publicized case of a 12-year-old girl forced into sex slavery at an Eastside crack house. Brothers Juan and Bobby Moreno kidnapped the child and locked her in the bathroom, according to authorities. According to the girl's testimony, the brothers raped her and then kept her for 10 days. Customers at the crack house could pay extra for sex with the girl. In all, she was forced to have sex with about 25 men, and when she resisted she was tied to the bed. According to court records, some of the johns snapped nude photos of the girl with their cell phones. Eventually a neighbor came to the house, recognized the girl, and rescued her.

Burchell, who eventually investigated the case, recalls interviewing the girl. "When I walked out of that room, I got teary eyed. She described some of the most sadistic shit that a human being could endure." Melton says the girl has never really recovered. "She has continued within the juvenile system to struggle significantly." Juan Moreno received four life sentences in late 2010. His brother Bobby is set to be tried on similar charges this coming spring.

For law enforcement, the concept of "human trafficking" is still a relatively new one. The feds didn't recognize it until 2000 when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims and Protection Act. It took until 2008 to put domestic victims under that umbrella.

Burchell likens the growing awareness to that surrounding domestic violence. After decades of inattention, advocates and law enforcement slowly built an infrastructure to identify and support victims of domestic abuse, while lawmakers acted to make abusers easier to prosecute. "Basically, mamma gets beaten by a drunk or whatever at the house, we have everything we need to remove her, house, clothe, and feed her. And we can put that guy in jail, then put him out on the street with protective orders," he said.

States are still scrambling to build similar network for young victims of sexual exploitation, he says.

The prospect of domestic minor sex trafficking has also forced officials to ask hard questions about how the system deals with prostitutes more generally, Melton says. "I think when we arrest these women [involved in prostitution], we have an obligation to begin to talk to them about what's going on. … A lot of times if you find adult prostitution, you find a child component there."

But the criminal justice system is often unforgiving, says Courtois of Project Carinó. Sex workers with multiple arrests, often for a mix of prostitution and drug abuse, are still frequently dismissed as degenerates, prejudices that keep past exploitations from surfacing. "We've heard a judge say this in open court, that 'You're nothing but an addict and that's all you'll ever be,'" Courtois said. "When you have a system telling them this over and over, they start believing it. … The problem is, we've realized like 70 percent of our women were victims of exploitation. As kids they can remember their parents, family, or someone exchanging them for sex with men."

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Tackling domestic minor sex trafficking also means confronting uncomfortable connections, says Elizabeth Crooks with Embassy of Hope. Like many anti-trafficking advocates, Crooks squarely blames a hyper-sexualized society and points to legal sexually oriented businesses — including strip clubs and the "barely-legal" internet porn sites — as breeding grounds for child exploitation. "Many of the girls I've seen have worked in quote-unquote legal establishments. Dancing or porn or whatnot," she says. "I don't care what you say, that has a dark side. … Girls that are underage aren't doing it of their own will."

"Jessica" ran away from a well-off Northside San Antonio family to start stripping at a Northside club at age 17. "They wanted to snatch me up before I turned legal and some other club got me," she says. After a few weeks of dancing, club owners told Jessica they'd fire her if she didn't start "taking care" of customers in the back room. Eventually, they sold her out for sex on a routine basis. A heroin addiction and boyfriend who brutally beat her when she didn't bring home the cash kept her involved. "I was just stuck. I'd go in night after night and just want to die," she says.

Advocates say the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission plays a key role in the anti-trafficking movement, issuing citations for "sexual contact," underage nude dancing, or for having prostitution on premises. According to TABC records Bexar County clubs Sugars, Essence, Endless Music, and the San Antonio Men's Club have all received prostitution complaints within the past decade.

One Houston-area woman, now 26 who wished to be identified as "Grace," found help from Crooks and Embassy of Hope. A runaway at age 9, Grace survived by having sex with adult men who'd in turn feed, shelter, and pay her. By the time she was a teenager, she was being sold in strip club champagne rooms, shady health spas, modeling studios, and massage parlors across Houston and other Texas cities. The pimps flew her and others to Nevada, where they registered as sex workers. "I was always inside. I was never allowed to go outside the studio or club," Grace said. Drugs kept things bearable. One night, while she was in a drug-induced daze, her pimp gave her a large back tattoo ("It was basically a brand he put on some of his other girls"). Once, when she refused to work, a pimp stuck a gun to her temple.

In counseling, she's now a witness in a federal case against six men charged with a litany of federal crimes, including sex trafficking of children, sex trafficking by force, and the transportation and coercion of minors.

Along with adult entertainment, anti-trafficking activists have eyed another target: adult classified advertisements. Last November, when the National Association of Attorneys General gathered in San Antonio for their annual conference, domestic minor sex trafficking was front and center. Washington State Attorney General and NAAG President Rob McKenna stood beside former congresswoman Linda Smith, now president of the anti-trafficking nonprofit Shared Hope International, to promote the group's crusade against sex trafficking. Both decried adult classifieds — particularly of the online variety at Backpage.com, a website for classified ads owned by Village Voice Media Holdings (which includes the Houston Press and Dallas Observer in its stable of 13 weekly papers) — that cover some 500 cities around the world including San Antonio.

Last August, in an open letter signed by more than 40 state attorneys general, the group called Backpage a "hub" for human trafficking, and late last month the coalition pushed for Washington state lawmakers to pass a bill that clamps down on companies that don't demand ID before allowing sex-related ads to be posted online. (Those placing adult ads in the Current's classified pages are required to submit an ID). Backpage has so far declined to do so and has indicated that if passed, the company would challenge the new law, saying it's in violation of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Most recently, VVM took a serious drubbing from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who last month detailed the grisly case of a 13-year-old Brooklyn girl who investigators say was pimped via Backpage.com. He called the site "a godsend to pimps, allowing customers to order a girl online as if she were pizza."

While Melton, Burchell, and others say adult classifieds and Backpage have become ubiquitous in child sex trafficking, VVM contends it's made significant investments in technology and editing staff to screen its adult ads. The site says its editors report suspicious cases to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and has even assisted in investigations. Similar scandal enveloped Craigslist in 2009 over its adult classified, eventually pushing it out of the adult-classified business.

VVM's open letter to critics reads, in part: "Neither government officials nor God's advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or free speech. … Complicated issues require sophisticated solutions, not PR flurries."

Perhaps most striking, VVM's own reporters have jumped into the squabble with a series of pieces aimed at discrediting a widespread "sex-trafficking panic" pumped by what the writers called "sex prohibitionists" — those bent on ending "the world's oldest profession," along with porn or adult entertainment of any kind. (With critics estimating VVM makes $22 million a year from sex ads, the company certainly has a dog in the fight and readily admits so in each of its installments.) One feature, circulated in all but one of the company's weeklies last June, targeted celebrity Ashton Kutcher for publicly citing faulty data on sex trafficking. "Real Men Get Their Facts Straight," read the headline, a snarky jab at Kutcher's "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" PSAs.

Indeed, much of VVM's coverage dwells on the widely cited data surrounding sex trafficking, contenting the feds have given millions in grants to advocacy groups, often to launch public-awareness or education campaigns, who hype the scope of the problem and inflate the numbers.

In attempting to get at the scope of child sex trafficking, advocates have touted suspect statistics.

In one study, the Women's Funding Network alleged exponential increases in underage sex trafficking over the course of mere months in targeted markets after studying a handful of major American cities. A Texas version of the study was replicated for the Dallas Women's Foundation in 2010 as authorities issued dire warnings to the media that Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium would bring a deluge of underage prostitutes. Arrests ultimately proved to be negligible. Neither of the studies actually surveyed or much less located any underage sex workers. Researchers concede there's no direct way to safely study, or make contact with, children in the sex trade. Their methodology essentially amounts to perusing ads for hookers and escorts over a period of weeks and marking which ones appear to be underage. The verdict? "The latest Texas statewide data suggests 188 girls under 18 are commercially sexually exploited on a typical weekend night via internet classified websites and escort services," reads Shared Hope's most recent report on domestic minor sex trafficking in the state. It's a figure the Current erroneously cited in December when reporting on the release of the report.

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The reality is there's no large, empirical study gauging the prevalence of child prostitution, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. No one really knows how many juveniles are sold for sex across the country. Estimates on child prostitution range from 1,400 a year (FBI Uniform Crime Report data) all the way to 2.4 million, an oft-cited figure lifted from dated and questionable research largely based on hunches. According to Finkelhor, none of the espoused estimates are based on strong data. Instead they hinge on "educated guesses or extrapolations based on questionable assumptions."

While the feds collect national data, the U.S. Department of Justice itself concedes "comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking." A 2006 DOJ study that analyzed FBI data found the system caught 1,400 children engaged in prostitution in one year, though that number's widely seen as a low-ball. "In truth, not many law enforcement agencies are actively arresting youth in regard to this problem," he says. Most, he says are arrested for other crimes — like drug possession, curfew violation, or others. While the data may be plausible, he says, "no one believes this estimate fully characterizes the problem."

Aggregating state and local law enforcement data, the Texas trafficking task force reported in 2011 that 369 children had been identified as domestic minor sex trafficking victims in the state between 2007 and 2011. University of Texas at San Antonio social work professor Bob Ambrosino and two dozen of his students made a documentary on the local minor sex trade last year. They hit the streets for a month, filming at a furious pace to capture stories of active and former sex workers, finding most had been forced into the trade as minors. In late November, they screened an hour-long documentary, titled Behind Closed Doors: Voices from the Inside, for local social workers, professors, victims advocates, and policymakers. "Based on what we found, I feel it's a grossly underreported problem," Ambrosino said. "Part of what we discovered is that a lot of the professionals, whether health care, police, or what have you, were just not sensitized to the problem. When you've got a minor that's picked up for prostitution, there's probably something else going on there," he said.

It took until 2010 for Texas' handling of juvenile prostitution to change from a system that viewed delinquents in need of prosecution to one that recognized children in need of saving. That year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a 13-year-old runaway girl, sentenced to 18 months probation after she was caught offering to give an undercover Houston cop a blowjob for $20, couldn't be charged with selling sex. "Children are the victims, not the perpetrators, of child prostitution," wrote then-outgoing Justice Harriet O'Neill. The state estimates that between 2006 and 2009, an average of 63 kids a year were arrested on prostitution charges in Texas. San Antonio police arrested just 16 minors for prostitution in the past decade, according to police records obtained through a state open records request.

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.

Sometime after her own child was born, Debbie's mother forced her to get married. After that, she cycled in and out of sex work and addiction. Her husband, a much older man, would beat her and sell her off when he needed his fix. "I would think why didn't anyone come looking for me?" she said. "Like, why aren't the school people trying to find out where I'm at?"

Advocates say victims like Debbie have always been there. We just weren't looking for them.

The only question remaining is whether we can develop a system equipped to find and treat these trauma-scarred child victims. "The system has failed most of these individuals at such a very young age," says Lujan, as we continue our drive into the Eastside. She points to young women perched on street corners and outside clubs and spills her frustration over compromised funding, stretched resources, and overburdened caseworkers. She's waiting to see whether the system again fails these young girls if and when she can pull them off the street. •

By the numbers

 

2000
Congress acknowledges international human sex trafficking, passing the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. U.S. victims are included in the bill's reauthorization in 2008.

 

2
Number of full-time detectives investigating human trafficking at the Bexar County Sheriff's Department.

 

50
Average number of human trafficking cases investigated by those detectives each year.

 

2
Number of successful child sex trafficking prosecutions by the Bexar County DA's office.

 

90
Number of cases flagged by Bexar County juvenile justice since 2009 as possible child sex trafficking cases.

 

(Sources: Bexar County, Texas Attorney General's Office)

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