WASHINGTON: The FBI recovered 168 children, including 16 in Northeast Ohio, and arrested 281 people on pimping charges during a nationwide sting coordinated through federal, state and local law enforcement agencies last week, the bureau announced Monday, part of a decade-long effort to combat child sex trafficking.
The sting, the eighth in a series of efforts called Operation Cross Country, recorded the most recoveries and pimping arrests since the first operation in 2008.
The operation was run out of 54 field divisions in 106 cities. The youngest child recovered was 11 years old, FBI Director James B. Comey said at a news conference at the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building.
The top five cities with the most number of recovered children were Denver, 18; Cleveland, 16; Chicago, 13; Atlanta, 11; and Los Angeles, 10.
The Cleveland office of the FBI said the sting ended with the arrests of 12 pimps in Northeast Ohio.
Eleven of the local children sold into prostitution were found in Cleveland; four came from Toledo and one from Elyria.
The leading cities for arrests were Phoenix, 21; Jackson, Miss., 19; New Orleans, 17; Atlanta, 15; and Oklahoma City, 14.
While a complete range of statistics regarding the children recovered and people arrested was not immediately available, officials said almost all of them were Americans.
“These are not faraway kids from faraway lands,” Comey said. “These are America’s children.”
“I hate that we have to do this work — hate it,” Comey said. “I love the people who’ve devoted their lives to doing this work. There is no more meaningful work that the FBI participates in than rescuing children.”
He said the operations were designed to “crush these pimps” and show that children are not for sale. They are also intended to rescue children who are being trafficked on street corners, in truck stops and, increasingly, on the Internet, where pimps advertise and arrange sexual encounters.
Kathryn Turman, assistant director of the FBI Office for Victim Assistance, said that before they went missing, 126 of the recovered children were in custody of either parents or guardians and 41 were in state custody. While a few had been reunited with their guardians, she said most were being evaluated to determine whether that would be in the child’s best interests.
Turman said some of the families may have played a role in prostituting the children.
John Ryan, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that in 2013 one in every seven endangered runaways were likely victims of sexual exploitation. He said the Internet — specifically social media — has increasingly become the platform through which children are found and sold into sex trafficking.
“The biggest change we have seen in eight years has been the increasing prevalence of children being sold online,” Comey said.
In addition, Ryan said that many of the children recovered had never been reported missing. Part of the problem, he said, is that only Illinois and Florida require child welfare agencies to report missing children to the national center.
While the nationwide sting was coordinated for the week of June 16, the majority of the recoveries and arrests occurred in one four-day period last week, Comey said.
In 2003, the FBI started the Innocence Lost National Initiative to combat childhood sex trafficking. Through the initiative, the FBI has recovered nearly 3,600 children and recorded 1,450 convictions for sex trafficking and prostitution.
In response to a question of what the FBI is doing to curb the demand for such services, Comey said the agency works with local law enforcement agencies to charge patrons with solicitation. He said local investigations began several weeks in advance of last week’s nationwide sting.
McClatchy Newspapers, the Associated Press and the Beacon Journal contributed to this report.