| USA TODAY NETWORK
Law enforcement and prosecutors explain the difficulties in bringing charges – and the hurdles in convicting traffickers.
Days after the U.S. Marshals Service announced the rescue of 39 endangered children in Georgia, similar operations are ongoing in two other states as authorities target missing kids who may be victims of sex trafficking.
In Ohio, “Operation Safety Net” led to the discovery of 25 children ages 13 to 18 in less than three weeks, the Marshals Service said. The operation is likely to continue into October, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott said.
A two-week operation is underway near Indianapolis, Darby Kirby, chief of the Marshals’ Missing Child Unit, told USA TODAY in an email Tuesday.
These operations are part of efforts at the local level to locate missing children rather than a coordinated nationwide sweep, Kirby said. Since 2005, the marshals have helped recover 1,800 missing children.
Operations such as Safety Net allow agents to give undivided attention to finding endangered children, U.S. Marshals Public Information Officer Anne Murphy said.
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“If they were looking for kids every day, they would find kids every day,” said Suzanne Lewis-Johnson, CEO at RAHAB Ministries in Ohio, who worked as an FBI agent and on a Child Exploitation Task Force running operations similar to the ones conducted by the Marshals Service.
The results of these operations will challenge widespread assumptions about endangered children in the USA, Staca Shehan, a vice president with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told USA TODAY on Tuesday.
The operation in Georgia – dubbed “Operation Not Forgotten” – is a prime example. Many of the 39 children recovered were found with a parent, kidnapped by a parent, had gone missing from child services or had fled juvenile justice, according to Kirby’s statement.
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That’s in contrast to widespread fears about child abductions at the hands of strangers, Shehan said. It is much more common for a child to become ensnared in human trafficking through the actions of a relative or after running away.
In the Georgia operation, 15 recovered children were victims of trafficking – most would be considered runaways “who fell into the human trafficking realm,” according to Kirby.
Some children who run away have been lured by predators online, according to Lewis-Johnson.
Human traffickers target vulnerabilities and recruit missing children or kids who can be lured away from home, Lewis-Johnson said. They’ll often look for insecurities, such as a poor home life, or even social media posts about needing money or feeling uncared for.
Lewis-Johnson said predators groom children and offer themselves as a counterfeit solution.
Shehan said misconceptions about endangered children can make it harder to locate them. A focus on the rare cases of abduction by a stranger can make it easy for the public to overlook children who have run away or may be in danger from a parent or relative.
“Right now, I believe our children are more vulnerable to traffickers than they’ve ever been,” Lewis-Johnson said.