In a two-week search for endangered missing children in Georgia dubbed “Operation Not Forgotten,” the U.S. Marshals Service said Thursday that they recovered 39 children and arrested several individuals in connection with their disappearance, including persons who had sex offender violations.
The law enforcement agency said in a statement that their Missing Child Unit worked with their Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as state and local agencies to rescue 26 children and safely locate 13 others.
Nine criminal associates were also arrested.
“The U.S. Marshals Service is fully committed to assisting federal, state, and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children, in addition to their primary fugitive apprehension mission,” Director of the Marshals Service Donald Washington said. “The message to missing children and their families is that we will never stop looking for you.”
Investigators, cited by Fox 5, said of the 39 recovered children who ranged in age from 3 to 17, some 15 of them were identified as victims of sex trafficking. Others, according to the agency, faced physical abuse, medical or mental health conditions. Some children were located at the request of law enforcement to ensure their wellbeing.
"I have children. I'm sure many of you do as well. These are not my kids and these are not your kids, but actually they are our kids when it's all said and done," Washington said at a press conference.
The agency said 26 arrest warrants were cleared by investigators during the operation and they filed a host of new charges alleging sex trafficking, parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations, drugs and weapons possession, and custodial interference.
“When we track down fugitives, it’s a good feeling to know that we're putting the bad guy behind bars. But that sense of accomplishment is nothing compared to finding a missing child," Darby Kirby, chief of the Missing Child Unit, explained. “It's hard to put into words what we feel when we rescue a missing child, but I can tell you that this operation has impacted every single one of us out here. We are working to protect them and get them the help they need.”
In 2019, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported more than 421,000 missing children to the FBI. That year, the USMS helped recover 295 missing children based on requests for assistance from law enforcement and contributed to the recovery of a missing child in 75 percent of cases received, the agency said.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, child sex trafficking is a problem at-risk American children are currently facing as they are recruited and exploited for commercial sex. Pimps and traffickers, said the agency, sexually exploit children through street prostitution and in adult night clubs, illegal brothels, sex parties, motel rooms, hotel rooms, and other locations throughout the U.S.
Many of these children are usually homeless, runaway or throwaway youth who often come from low income families.
“This population is seen as an easy target by pimps because the children are generally vulnerable, without dependable guardians, and suffer from low self-esteem. Victims of the prostitution of children, however, come from all backgrounds in terms of class, race, and geography,” the DOJ explained.