WASHINGTON, D.C. (Christian Examiner) – In a week-long nationwide sting, over 500 law enforcement officials coordinated by the FBI rescued 149 children from human trafficking—and the youngest one was 12 years old.
"It's a really young age—we're really concerned about that," said Staca Shehan, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which provided aid for the rescued children. "The majority of cases we see involve 15-, 16- and 17-year-old children," Shehan said.
Runaway youth are especially likely to be exploited by predators who, after winning the children's trust and obtaining their dependence, force them into prostitution.
"Runaway juveniles are particularly vulnerable to being led into prostitution because they run away from possibly a bad family situation and then get pulled into drugs or a lifestyle that leads to prostitution," Crystal Nosal, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria Police Department, said in a video released by NCMEC.
Nosal said experienced detectives interview the children to find out how they came to be exploited in an effort to prevent future cases.
The Operation Cross Country website profiles Nicole, now a woman in her 20s, who was rescued from human trafficking at age 17.
"He was gorgeous and he had charm," Nicole said, speaking of her abuser, Juan Vianez, who is serving a 20-year sentence. "I just wanted someone in my life to show me attention for a change, instead of being ignored."
He controlled every part of her life so that when she wanted to leave, she didn't have any resources. "Everything was tied into him," Nicole said. "I didn't have a house, I didn't have a bank account, I didn't have my own car. I didn't have anything. So if I left Juan I left everything."
Nicole felt hopeless and powerless, stuck as a victim in a terrible situation. Most girls don't choose to be victims, she said, adding she wished she could show them the "bad stuff" that comes later so they would know to stay away from situations that could potentially victimize them.
"A lot of these girls feel like they are stuck," said Dani Geissinger-Rodarte, a victim specialist in Seattle. "But I know that if they keep in touch with me, that somewhere down the road they are going to be ready for services, and we can connect them."
"I think if it wasn't for Dani being so persistent and staying on top of me then..." Nicole trailed off in the video. "She just, she was there. Whenever I needed someone she was there. She made sure that she helped me as much as she could."
Nicole, who is in college with a job, is very proud of the progress she's made. She called Dani to tell her she bought her first "off-the-lot" car. "Because I was so proud that I built up my credit that much. So I'm very proud of myself."
Even though she has emotional ups and downs, Nicole is recovering. "Because now it's been so many years I've kind of figured out how to get back to being Nicole again," she said.
OPERATION CROSS COUNTRY
Since 2003, Operation Cross Country actions have rescued 4,800 sexually exploited children and resulted in more than 2,000 convictions of pimps, according to the FBI's press release. This year, 149 children were rescued, and over 153 pimps and associates were arrested, the Bureau said.
"Our mission is to protect the American people—especially our children—from harm," said FBI Director James Comey. "When kids are treated as a commodity in seedy hotels and on dark roadsides, we must rescue them from their nightmare and severely punish those responsible for that horror. We simply must continue to work with our partners to end the scourge of sex trafficking in our country."
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said human trafficking was "monstrous and devastating" in a written statement, according to WUSA9. She applauded the results of this year's Operation Cross Country: "More children will sleep safely tonight, and more wrongdoers will face the judgment of our criminal justice system."
This was the ninth Operation Cross Country, part of the FBI's Innocence Lost National Initiative. Law enforcement officials rescued children and arrested predators in hotels and casinos, truck stops and roadsides—anywhere humans are trafficked.
"The Department of Justice will continue to aggressively and persistently fight this heinous crime, and to hold its perpetrators accountable to the fullest extent of the law," Lynch added.
"This operation is just a glimpse, just a snapshot into what's occurring every single day in this country," Shehan said. "We know these kids are being targeted and we need to commit resources to locating them, recovering, and providing services long-term."
Thanks to national and local law enforcement, this year 149 more children will have the opportunity, like Nicole, to get back to being themselves again.