Child sex trafficking is entangled in gang life and the drug trade. National and local lawmakers are wrestling with how to combat teen prostitution, but quantifying the matter is complicated.

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SUNNYSIDE, Yakima County — Neatly stored in a closet of Maria Mojica’s one-bedroom apartment are school supplies, clothing and crafts she keeps ready and waiting for her daughter Jessica Estrada.

They’ve been there for a year.

On Jan. 13, 2011, the teenager cried after getting a mysterious phone call, pushed past Mojica and hopped a fence into missing-child reports and her mother’s darkest fears.

Mojica admits she doesn’t know for sure, but she suspects Jessica, now 14, is caught up in the sinister world of teen prostitution.

A history of dating older gang members, sightings with men near Yakima motels, social-media pictures in which she looks pregnant — all inconclusive clues of her daughter’s life.

“It’s like I’m missing half of my heart,” she said.

But if Mojica’s fears are true, Jessica is part of a sad tale that state officials, police, child-welfare officials and society at large are just beginning to grasp: Children are bought and traded for sex and can’t get out. Making things worse, the welfare and justice system in many ways categorizes them as criminals.

“They’re victims, first and foremost,” said Suzi Carpino, a sex-trafficking case manager for Sunnyside’s Promise, a nonprofit youth organization trying to help Mojica and families like hers.

Advocates like Carpino say a new awareness is taking hold, but there’s a long way to go.

Congress is now debating whether to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a 2000 law that made human trafficking a federal crime.

Part of the delay has been difficulty quantifying the problem.

The federal government calls human trafficking a $32 billion global industry, tied with arms dealing for second behind the drug trade. It includes forced or coerced labor, as well as anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children at risk of sexual exploitation in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, but anti-trafficking advocates are known to criticize even those figures as either over- or underestimated.

No statistics have been compiled for Washington, though a 2008 city of Seattle human-services report estimated that between 300 to 500 children in King County were involved with prostitution, based on records from juvenile court and social-service cases.

New resources for victims have opened, including a long-term residential recovery home in Seattle.

State laws that took effect in 2008 increased penalties for pimps and johns, and this year lawmakers plan to introduce multiple bills to combat trafficking, including minors used on escort websites, according to Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland.

The U.S. Attorney’s Western Washington offices have successfully prosecuted at least seven human-trafficking cases within the past two years and average between 20 and 30 cases per year.

A call for change

Rob McKenna, state attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate, has made human trafficking the primary agenda for his term as president of the National Association of Attorneys General. The organization is considering placing an advertisement decrying the problem during this year’s Super Bowl.

Last Wednesday, McKenna collected more than 270,000 signatures on a petition calling for even more law changes that would cement the notion that children involved are victims.

Prostitution is a crime, and police arrest girls for it — even if they are younger than 16, the state’s age of consent. The fear of prosecution leaves girls, often trapped by drug addiction and threats, unwilling to report their problems to authorities when they are picked up. McKenna knows of instances in high-profile Seattle cases of teenage girls lying on the witness stand to protect their accused pimps because they were afraid or had been psychologically manipulated.

McKenna agreed state laws should better define the problem.

“I come down on the side recognizing these girls as victims,” he said.

However, he is reluctant to completely decriminalize prostitution, even for younger girls, because it would take away a tool for police to intervene and steer the kids toward help.

In the Yakima Valley, juvenile sex trafficking often is tied to gangs, say victim advocates and police.

In a typical scenario, an older gang member convinces a 14-year-old he loves her, introduces her to drugs and asks for sexual favors, first for himself, then for his gang mates as a way to boost his status, recruit new members and make a profit for the gang by pimping her out.

It’s going on, but officers have trouble saying how much.

“We definitely know that it’s happening,” said Sgt. Brenda George of the Yakima Police Department’s special assault unit.

Police routinely investigate child sexual-abuse and prostitution complaints, but pinning it to trafficking is a new idea, George said. Many victims end up in juvenile court for drug and violence charges but never say a word about prostitution.

An extra stigma

Few victims of gang crimes report problems for fear of retaliation, while prostitution carries an extra stigma that makes information even harder to come by.

“Because of that, it makes it even more invisible and even more insidious than it already is,” said Leslie Briner, associate director of residential services for Seattle agency YouthCare and a child-prostitution consultant.

Mojica fears all this has claimed her daughter.

When she was as young as 11 or 12, Jessica dated heavily tattooed older gang members and sneaked out at night with them to parties as far away as Mattawa, Grant County, Mojica said.

The girl told her mother some of them gave her marijuana and that she often threatened to beat up her younger brother Alexis, now 10, if he told on her.

The single mother lost count of how many times her daughter ran away.

Once, the mother received a menacing phone call in which a male voice said something to the effect of, “We have your daughter but you’ll never see her again if you call the police.”

Scared, Mojica complied that time, but has worked with the police over the years. She tried grounding, yelling and even left Jessica overnight in jail one time. She has since attended counseling and parenting classes.

But she blames herself anyway.

“I feel guilty,” she said. “I should really have paid more attention to Jessica.”