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Dozens of missing children, many the victims of alleged sex-trafficking, have been rescued after a two-week operation in Georgia, authorities said.
Led by the U.S. Marshals Service, "Operation Not Forgotten" rescued 26 children, safely located 13 others and led to nine arrests, according to a Marshals Service press release.
Senior Inspector Josue Rivera recalled a particularly poignant rescue at a Rockdale County garage in an interview with Atlanta station WSB-TV. The rescued minor, a teenager, told authorities she’d been trafficked for sex since she was 12.
“She told us she didn’t realize anyone cared enough to look for her. She was thinking we were there to arrest someone else. We told her, ‘We’re here for you,’” Rivera told the station.
The oldest of the recovered children was 17. The youngest was just 3 years old, discovered in a Florida motel with three adults, according to Rivera.
One of those adults, James Garcia, was arrested on a Georgia warrant for aggravated child molestation, incest with a minor and aggravated sodomy, CBS Tampa Bay reports. Another was arrested on a warrant for probation violation, while the last was charged with interfering with child custody.
Operation Not Forgotten’s nine arrests cleared 26 Georgia warrants in total, according to the release.
“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,” Dan Kirby, chief of the Missing Child Unit, said in the release.
The operation focused on “some of the most at-risk and challenging recovery cases” in Georgia, according to the press release. The children had been missing for anywhere from a few weeks to two years, Atlanta station CBS 46 reports. Fifteen of them were involved in sex-trafficking, according to CBS Tampa Bay.
A staggering number of children go missing in the United States every year: about one every 40 seconds, or 765,000 each year, according to the FBI. Of those, about 97% are eventually recovered.
According Donald Washington, director of the Marshals Service, the goal of Operation Not Forgotten is clear.
“The message to missing children and their families is that we will never stop looking for you,” he said in the release.
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