An investigation in Southern California dubbed “Operation Lost Angels” found 33 missing children in recent weeks, including two youths found multiple times at commercial sex-trafficking locations.
Kristi Johnson, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, revealed some details of the 10-day operation on behalf of more than two dozen law enforcement agencies that worked to identify, locate and return the missing young people.
The operation came two months after another effort in Virginia recovered 27 youths, some of them runaways, sometimes found with other family members, and teens in the foster care system.
“The FBI considers human trafficking modern-day slavery,” Johnson said. “The minors engaged in commercial sex trafficking are considered victims.”
Children on the ‘track’
Of the 33 children recovered, eight were being sexually exploited at the time of recovery. Two were recovered multiple times during the operation while on the “track,” a term used to describe a known location for commercial sex trafficking. It is not uncommon for victims who are rescued to return to commercial sex trafficking either voluntarily or by force, fraud, or coercion, Johnson said. Several other victims located had been sexually exploited in the past and were considered “vulnerable” missing children prior to their recovery.
One suspected human trafficker arrested
The operation resulted in the arrest on state charges of one suspected human trafficker and the opening of multiple criminal investigations, the FBI said. Some of the minor victims were arrested for probation violations, robbery or other misdemeanors. One child was a victim of a noncustodial parental kidnapping.
Caring for kids after they are found
The FBI and other agencies provide resources to victims aimed at ensuring their short- and long-term needs are met. Resources may include immediate medical requirements, legal services, housing, employment, education, job training and child care.
“Collaboration with our law enforcement partners is key to ending the vicious cycle of modern day slavery,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said. “I’m committed to doing everything we can to stop human trafficking.”
Sex-trafficking crimes on the rise
The FBI caseload for sex and labor trafficking-related crimes has increased significantly in the past several years, Johnson said. As of November 2020, there were more than 1,800 pending trafficking investigations, including those involving minors exploited through commercial sex trafficking. In fiscal year 2020, the FBI initiated 664 human trafficking investigations nationwide, resulting in the arrests of 473 traffickers.
“While this operation surged resources over a limited period of time with great success, the FBI and our partners investigate child sex trafficking every day of the year and around the clock,” Johnson said.
Elsewhere: US Marshals led ‘Operation Not Forgotten’ in Georgia last year
The U.S. Marshals Service Missing Child Unit worked with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Georgia state and local agencies to lead a two-week operation in August in Georgia that rescued 26 endangered and missing children. “Operation Not Forgotten” led to nine arrests.
“The message to missing children and their families is that we will never stop looking for you,” Director of the Marshals Service Donald Washington said.
What we know about the Virginia cases
Twenty-seven children in Virginia were recovered as part of an operation over five days with federal agents, local law enforcement, state social services officials and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The cases were announced together as part of a larger operation, but there was no suspected criminal enterprise linking the cases, said Peter Marketos, Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Virginia.
None of the cases involved a child being abducted by someone they did not know, and many were “essentially kids in a bad situation,” added Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Schermer for the Western District of Virginia.
“This is not part of a child smuggling ring or anything of that nature,” he said.