FBI nationwide operation locates 121 actively missing kids, child sex trafficking victims

The FBI announced the results of a nationwide sex trafficking operation on Monday, revealing that 84 minor victims of child sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation have been identified and located. 

Another 37 actively missing children have also been located during the FBI’s nationwide enforcement campaign, dubbed “Operation Cross Country,” according to the Justice Department.

In addition to the identification and location of 121 adolescent victims, the FBI and its partners located 141 adult victims of human trafficking. The DOJ said that FBI agents and investigators also identified or arrested 85 suspects of child sexual exploitation and human trafficking offenses. 

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Those suspects identified will be subject to additional investigation for potential chargers, the Justice Department said. The average age of victims located in similar operations is approximately 15.5 years old, while the youngest victim discovered during this operation was 11 years old.

 57% OF US HUMAN TRAFFICKING VICTIMS WERE MINORS IN 2021 FEDERAL PROSECUTIONS: REPORT 

“Human trafficking is among the most heinous crimes the FBI encounters,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. ”Unfortunately, such crimes—against both adults and children—are far more common than most people realize. As we did in this operation, the FBI and our partners will continue to find and arrest traffickers, identify and help victims, and raise awareness of the exploitation of our most vulnerable populations.”

In a press release of its own Monday, the FBI said a major law enforcement operation to locate and assist victims of human trafficking and related crimes resulted in the location of more than 200 victims during the first two weeks of August. Operation Cross Country is a coordinated operation among the FBI, other federal agencies, state and local police, and social services agencies across the country to find and assist victims of human trafficking, particularly child victims. The goal is to gather intelligence, build criminal cases against traffickers, and offer victims assistance. 

“The initiative really just takes a concentrated period of time when we’re just focused on the problem of child sex trafficking,” Section Chief Jose Perez, who oversees violent crime investigations in the FBI, said. “What we do is we sit down with our local partners and our task forces and identify certain areas where we know sex trafficking is prevalent, and we’ll dedicate resources and efforts to identify and remove victims from those areas.”

FBI Atlanta’s operation located 19 missing children and resulted in the arrest of four traffickers.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, teams from 14 law enforcement agencies worked on a three-day operation. Their work included locating sex offenders who had failed to register, tracking predators who approach children online, and looking for a runaway teenager at high risk of being trafficked. It resulted in three arrests: one of an unregistered sex offender – to become a federal case — and two state arrests.

Two federal cases were opened on suspects possibly involved with child sexual abuse material production or enticement violations. The FBI said enticement involves using the internet to coerce a child — or someone connected to the child — to manufacture sexually explicit material of a child. 

Warning of the advent of social media in easing predators’ ability to exploit children online, the FBI said this year’s Operation Cross Country expanded to investigate sex offenders who may be eligible for federal charges and people trying to connect with children online to sexually abuse them.

“The success of Operation Cross County reinforces what NCMEC sees every day. Children are being bought and sold for sex in communities across the country by traffickers, gangs and even family members,” Michelle DeLaune, President and CEO National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said in a statement. “We’re proud to support the FBI’s efforts to prioritize the safety of children. This national operation highlights the need for all child-serving professionals to continue to focus on the wellbeing of children and youth to prevent them from being targeted in the first place.”

The FBI said law enforcement in the Chattanooga area continues to look for the runaway 17-year-old, who may be at high risk for trafficking. Investigators looked at the missing girl’s public social media profiles and talked with relatives to develop intelligence on where she might be. 

Given the girl’s history of trauma and family difficulty, law enforcement wants to offer her services if she is in danger of being trafficked, according to FBI Chattanooga’s victim specialist.

According to the Justice Department, victim specialists provide a “bridge” for victims who are wary of the system, help the victim establish positive relationships with law enforcement, and ensure the human trafficking victim population receives any appropriate resources available to them. 

Victim specialists also provide services based on the individual needs of human trafficking victims, including crisis intervention, emergency food and clothing, transportation to receive emergency services, and locating shelter or housing. The task forces in the recent operation included federal, state, local and tribal partners, with efforts in every state and even a few U.S. territories.

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