How the crusade against sex trafficking in Texas has left child victims behind.

A series by Morgan Smith, Neena Satija and Edgar Walters

Sex trafficking is never far from the headlines. We’ve all seen the flashy cable news stories, the explosive reports of law enforcement stings, the harrowing images of women, many of them foreign-born, housed in rundown motel rooms.

But rarely has this coverage touched on the most hard-to-stomach — and hard-to-report — aspect of the crime: the American children plucked from schools, foster care and even child welfare facilities and sold for sex.

The Texas Tribune approached its Sold Out series from this untold perspective, giving readers a window into the lives of troubled young girls lured into Texas’ sex trade by pimps with promises of a more stable life.

And then we sought accountability.

Following a six-month investigation, our reporters revealed how state leaders’ indifference and incompetence failed these child victims on multiple levels — and how Texas’ child welfare system has become a de facto pipeline that helps feed the state’s underground sex trade. Our reporting identified fundamental flaws in the state's safety nets for vulnerable children both in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

Texas’ Sex-Trafficking Pipeline

Texas leaders have publicly battled sex trafficking for more than a decade, but they’ve devoted hardly any resources to helping victims. They have also failed to confront the role the child welfare system plays in providing a supply of vulnerable kids to criminals waiting to exploit them.

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After her father raped her, Jean became one of the roughly 12,000 Texas kids in long-term foster care, a system that often leaves children more damaged than when they arrive. For Jean, selling sex seemed like a safer bet.

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No one wanted Lena behind bars — not the Houston police who arrested her, not the district attorney who pursued the case. In their eyes, she was not a prostitute; she was a child who had been sexually exploited. But teenage sex-trafficking victims in Texas end up in jail for one simple reason: There's nowhere else for them to go.

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Laws the state uses to convict pimps can fail to distinguish victim from perpetrator, meaning Texas' mission to put sex-traffickers behind bars is sweeping up their prey, too. A few years in age can mean the difference between a chance at rehabilitation and a lengthy prison sentence, as Yvette learned.

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Even when the child welfare and criminal justice systems work like they're supposed to, young victims of sex trafficking in Texas face an uncertain future. How do you help kids like Sarah, who’ve learned that the way to survive is to flee?

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In their own words

Texas Tribune reporters talked to three convicted traffickers to try to understand the power they wield over victims and the attraction of what they call "the lifestyle." Here they are in their own words.

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The portal

You don't have to dredge the backwaters of the Internet to find underage girls sold for sex online. The pimps who exploit them use more than a dozen major websites to advertise commercial sex. The most notorious is

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The search for solutions

We’ve exposed how Texas leaders who crusade against sex trafficking have done almost nothing to help child trafficking victims. In interviews with advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and victims themselves, here are the ways Texas could begin addressing the problem.

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This series — while comprehensive in its own right — was only the beginning of our coverage of this important issue. Our reporters wrote multiple follow-up stories during the recently concluded Texas legislative session, holding lawmakers accountable for again focusing on criminal penalties while doing little for sex trafficking victims.

In the end, lawmakers made a last-minute budget change, approving $3.2 million over the next two years to help rehabilitate child sex trafficking victims.