15 sex trafficking victims among 39 missing children recovered in Georgia

Credit: US Marshals Service

Credit: US Marshals Service

For law enforcement officials who spend countless hours investigating child sex trafficking cases, the work can feel like an uphill battle against evil.

Those who traffic minors for sex tend to fly under the radar. And when a child is rescued from an abusive situation, they’re often reluctant to accept help or speak out against those who harmed them.

In metro Atlanta alone, authorities estimate 300 young girls are lured into sex trafficking each month.

“These are not children that are in some faraway land,” said Donald Washington, director of the U.S. Marshals Service. “They are America’s children and they are kids that we need to go and find.”

During a recent two-week operation in metro Atlanta and Macon, investigators did just that. A collaborative effort involving federal, state and local law enforcement officials resulted in the recovery of 39 missing children, including 15 who authorities said were trafficked for sex.

As part of “Operation Not Forgotten,” members of the U.S. Marshals Service, the GBI and several other agencies conducted searches at dozens of Georgia homes, apartments and hotel rooms in search of the missing children, officials said Thursday during a news conference in Atlanta.

Credit: US Marshals Service

Credit: US Marshals Service

Those recovered ranged in age from 3 years old to 17, Washington said. Some had been missing for two weeks while others had been away from their families for two years.

Of the 39 children recovered, 26 were considered “endangered” by officials. The operation also led to the arrests of nine people, some of whom now face sex trafficking charges. Others were charged with parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations, drug and weapons possession and custodial interference.

Credit: US Marshals Service

Credit: US Marshals Service

“The harsh reality is that every 40 seconds a child is abducted in the United States,” Washington told reporters.

Of the more than 421,000 children missing in the U.S., 91% are considered endangered runaways, he said, and about one-sixth of those are likely to become sex trafficking victims.

Among those in attendance Thursday was Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office launched a sex trafficking prosecution unit in May 2019.

ExploreGeorgia creates sex trafficking prosecution unit

“This unit is new for our office. It is the first of its kind in state history,” Carr said. “When we launched, we had high expectations for the team, and they continue to exceed them.”

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / AJC

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / AJC

Since last year, Carr said his agency has placed 18 Georgia sex trafficking victims in rehabilitation services. The unit has worked cases in 11 Georgia counties, resulting in the indictments of five suspected sex traffickers, Carr said. Another eight sex trafficking investigations are underway.

“Sex trafficking can be, in many ways, a hidden crime — one that lives in the shadows,” he said. “If we can save one child from a life of abuse or sex trafficking, we’ve done our job. And this operation did that for many, many children.”

Some of the children recovered were reluctant to leave their homes, which officials said often happens when a child or teen is repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse.

Those who are rescued in Georgia receive medical treatment and mental health counseling at the Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospitals, officials said. The road to recovery can be a long one, however.

“It’s really important for these children that once they’re recovered, we can start the healing process,” said Dr. Stephen Messner, a child abuse pediatrician who serves as medical director for the center. “By involving us at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, we’re able to start that process right from the get-go.”