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2017 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Sold Out

About the Project

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 new 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.

Then we sought accountability.

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

The series, which launched in February, explains how Texas leaders have bent to growing consensus that young sex workers are victims, not prostitutes. Yet they’ve continued treating sex trafficking as a law enforcement problem and touting get-tough criminal penalties, while ignoring the plight of young victims. In rare cases where Texas lawmakers created programs aimed at helping victims, they failed to provide money to fund them. Instead of counseling, treatment and stable housing, our reporters found, victims typically were sent to jail — because Texas has only one facility equipped to help a population that numbers in the thousands.

Reporters Morgan Smith, Neena Satija and Edgar Walters interviewed more than 90 people for Sold Out, including 16 victims and three incarcerated pimps. They reviewed three-dozen criminal cases and attended two full sex-trafficking trials. Their reporting allowed them to document the stories of four young women:

  • Jean, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who at 16 turned to a Dallas pimp for food, shelter and affection amid a slow-burning crisis in the state’s foster care system.
  • Lena, a foster child who at 17 became one of the youngest inmates in the Harris County Jail, even though authorities knew she was a victim of child sex trafficking.
  • Yvette, who was convicted in San Antonio of trafficking a minor two days after her 23rd birthday, despite suffering at the hands of the man who pimped them both out.
  • Sarah, a 16-year-old from Austin who gave police a rare cause for hope after landing a spot at the state’s only treatment facility for sex-trafficking victims.

This series was only the beginning of our coverage of this issue. Our reporters wrote follow-up stories during the Texas legislative session, holding lawmakers accountable for again focusing on criminal penalties while doing little for victims.

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