Seven child trafficking victims — the youngest just 15 years old — were rescued in Georgia during a month-long, operation, the FBI announced Tuesday.
They were among 103 child victims recovered across the nation in an investigation that involved more than 400 agencies. Sixty-seven sex traffickers were also arrested, authorities said.
“It’s one of the most important things we do in the FBI,” Eric Pauley, the supervisor for the FBI’s Georgia trafficking task force, said during a press conference.
“We’re trying to protect our nation’s most valuable resource, and that’s our children. ”
In Georgia, four adult victims of trafficking were also rescued. Three people were arrested for pimping charges by the Smyrna Police Department.
Pauley said misdemeanor pimping is a common initial charge and may turn into a trafficking charge after an investigation. One suspect also has a drug charge against them.
“A lot of times it is very difficult to get the victims to tell us what’s going on, so we have to do the investigation to prove the trafficking charge, whereas the pimping charge is much easier to prove,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Taylor Dervish said.
To charge a suspect with trafficking adult victims, police must prove coercion or deception. That can be difficult, especially when victims are scared to talk to law enforcement, Dervish said. But if a victim is under 18, coercion or deception is not required for trafficking charges.
Depending on the case, Dervish said the FBI may follow up with federal charges if necessary, though trafficking itself can be charged by the state.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested more information about the suspects from Smyrna police but had not heard back by press time.
Pauley wouldn’t give much information about the child victims, but he said six were recovered in the Atlanta area and one from Augusta.
Georgia Cares, a nonprofit focused on child trafficking victims, worked closely with law enforcement to treat the children who were recovered.
The nonprofit identifies children at risk for human trafficking or those they can’t find and shares that information with the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Georgia Cares CEO Heather Stockdale said.
“A lot of what they were doing in July was going out and trying to locate those victims,” Stockdale said. “It’s a lot of really great information sharing on both sides.”
Pauley said the agencies used intelligence tactics and focused on the internet as a venue for sex trafficking. He said the operation was aimed at helping the victims get out of an exploitative situation and find resources for recovery.
Thirty law enforcement or government agencies participated in Georgia, including the GBI, FBI and multiple metro Atlanta and Savannah police departments. Other organizations involved include Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and iCare.
Georgia was one of the top states in the nation during the July operation to recover child victims, Pauley said. But it’s not necessarily because Atlanta has more sex trafficking than other large cities.
Instead, Dervish said the state’s task force is the largest in the country and heavily documents sex trafficking cases.
Stockdale said she’s seen a rise in awareness of human trafficking in Georgia, which she said is a leader in the nation in combating this crime.