'These Children Are Not Forgotten': 150 Missing Kids Rescued In 'Operation Volunteer Strong'

“I hope this operation changes the course for 150 young lives and leads them to the path of opportunities every child deserves,” the U.S. Marshals Service said.

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HUMAN TRAFFICKING: Grooming, Sexual Exploitation and Social Media
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HUMAN TRAFFICKING: Grooming, Sexual Exploitation and Social Media

Between 18,000 and 20,000 people are trafficked in the United States every year, according to the Human Trafficking Hotline. Roughly a quarter of those trafficked are children sold for sex. Social media and digital websites have become major grooming and recruitment tools for predators. Digital websites and platforms, such as Backpage.com, are clandestine marketplaces for trafficking. This episode dives into the underworld of human trafficking and the digital tactics used by those that perpetrate it.

At least 150 missing Tennessee children are safe following an extensive search and rescue effort that spanned several states, authorities announced this week.

The sweeping recovery effort, dubbed “Operation Volunteer Strong,” was launched in January after investigators identified 240 missing children across the state.

Over the course of two weeks, U.S. marshals and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation conducted a joint series of raids, each of which turned up dozens of missing children. The operation concluded in February.

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The children, whose backgrounds and family situations are varied, ranged in age from three to 17 years old, officials said. 

“Some left their home to run from some situation or conflict,” Assistant Special Agent In Charge Shelly Smitherman, of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, told reporters on Wednesday. “Some were found with non-custodial parents or family members. Some fled from state custody. Some were dealing with abuse of exploitation.”

Eight of the children were found out of state, investigators said, and three juvenile victims were identified as possible victims of human trafficking. A number of adults were also arrested on outstanding warrants as a result of the operation. 

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“The U.S. marshals are committed to assisting state and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children to help prevent their falling victim to crimes of violence and exploitation,” said David Jolley, U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee. “We will use every resource at our disposal to help find these missing children.”

One child discovered in the operation had been the subject of an active kidnapping case; the suspect accused in the child’s abduction was taken into police custody. 

“I hope this operation changes the course for 150 young lives and leads them to the path of opportunities every child deserves,” said Tyreece Miller, U.S. marshal for the Western District of Tennessee. “Our efforts should also serve notice to those who prey on society’s most vulnerable that these children are not forgotten. Investigations will continue and the next knock at the door could be for you."

Many of the children have now been turned over to the state.

“We are grateful that missing children have been recovered and are now receiving the services and treatment they need to stay safe and healthy,” said Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols. “This operation was truly a collaboration and it’s strengthened our relationship with our law enforcement partners. Working together, the agents, marshals, and DCS case managers put in countless hours to track down leads and locate these missing children.”

Officials said they’ll continue to search for the remaining 90 missing children identified by investigators in the initial stages of “Operation Volunteer Strong.”

“I cannot imagine being a parent with a child missing,” U.S. Marshal Denny King said. “We are looking for you and we will continue to do that.”

In December, Tennessee authorities carried out a two-day undercover operation targeting suspected human traffickers in east Tennessee. A total of 14 men, who were accused of soliciting sex from minors, were arrested during the course of the investigation and charged with trafficking for commercial sex acts. An adult woman and suspected human trafficking victim were also identified by authorities in the operation.

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