Human trafficking has been having an eventful summer. In July, internet sleuths accused online retailer Wayfair of selling missing children in overpriced cabinets. In August, QAnon supporters (along with some well-meaning if ill-informed influencers) held nationwide “Save the Children” rallies.
And last week, there was the trailer story.
“U.S. Marshals Find 39 Missing Children in Georgia During ‘Operation Not Forgotten,’” proclaimed the government’s official press release. Federal agents and local law enforcement, it said, had rescued 26 children, “safely located” 13 more and arrested nine perpetrators, some of whom were charged with sex trafficking.
The facts of the operation weren’t clear (what does “safely located” mean, exactly?), but it didn’t stop media outlets from taking up the story. “Missing Children Rescued in Georgia Sex Trafficking Bust” wrote The Associated Press, a headline dutifully repeated in The New York Times. “39 Missing Children Located in Georgia Sex Trafficking Sting Operation” was People magazine’s version. Few media outlets contributed any original reporting; the vast majority of stories were little more than rewritten versions of the U.S. Marshals Service’s press release.
Within hours, social media users continued the game of telephone. “39 kids were just recovered from traffickers in Georgia,” Charlie Kirk, the founder of the right-wing student group Turning Point USA, wrote in a tweet. “Law enforcement officers saved their lives. How is this not the biggest story in America right now?”
Thousands of other social media users repeated the same information and asked the same rhetorical question: Why wasn’t this a bigger deal?
“The media is so hell-bent on demonizing the law enforcement profession that they have to find really weak excuses to not cover it when cops rescue 39 children from a sex trafficking ring,” the National Fraternal Order of Police, the law enforcement union, told its followers.
More than 150,000 people shared a single-sentence tweet from someone named King Randall, I: “How is finding 39 missing children in a double wide trailer here in Georgia NOT the biggest news story in America?”
Well, to answer a one-sentence question with a one-sentence answer, 39 kids being rescued from a trailer in Georgia is not the biggest news story in America because 39 kids were not rescued from a trailer in Georgia.
“This is not the big trafficking bust everyone thinks it is,” said Erin Albright, a human trafficking and law enforcement consultant who works with cities to develop anti-trafficking strategies. “Any time a child is being harmed and is connected with meaningful support, that’s good. But at the same time, we have to recognize that these stories are not what they look like at first.”
Wait, So Was This A Trafficking Bust Or Not?
“This was not a designated anti-trafficking operation,” Darby Kirby, a U.S. Marshals Service inspector involved with the operation, told HuffPost. Operation Not Forgotten, the name law enforcement gave the recovery effort, was a collaboration between state and federal authorities to locate 78 “critically missing” children. That term means they could be at risk for trafficking, but they could also be at risk of parental abuse or have medical conditions that make their recovery more urgent.
The operation was a success. Authorities found all but 13 of the 78 missing children. Of the 65 they located, 39 were “recovered,” meaning they were removed from whatever situation they were in — which could be anything from living on the streets to crashing on a friend’s couch to staying with a parent who didn’t have custody rights. The other 26 cases were closed without the child being “recovered.” Albright said this could mean that another agency, such as Child Protective Services, found them — or that they had been home all along.
State authorities said they suspected that 15 of the 78 children were victims of trafficking (meaning they were engaging in commercial sex) but confirmed only six cases. Those children were transferred to a victims’ rehabilitation facility, and we’re going to talk about them later.
The operation netted only one new charge of sex trafficking against a perpetrator. Of the seven men and two women arrested, three were charged with probation violations, one was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and two were accused of violating custody arrangements. One person was arrested on a warrant for a previous sex trafficking charge, and two more were arrested on warrants for sex crimes in other states.
“We need to keep in mind that ‘rescuing’ these kids is not the end. They’re still incredibly vulnerable. A year from now the U.S. Marshals could do this again and pick up the same 39 kids.”
But What About All Those Kids They Found In The Trailer?
Yeah, there was no trailer.
Federal agents did not rescue a large number of children from a single location — or even a single jurisdiction. Kirby told HuffPost that only two children were recovered together. The other kids were found individually across 15 Georgia counties and six other states: South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida, Kentucky and Michigan. The operation took place over two weeks, not one night.
In other words, the “sex trafficking sting” described in headlines and social media posts was neither a sex trafficking operation nor a sting. Kirby noted that the agency did not conduct any raids (she capitalized and underlined the word “not” in her email) during the effort to locate the 78 children. This was a knock-on-doors and question-suspects situation, not a bust-in-with-a-battering-ram kind of deal.
It’s worth noting that the operation was also set up to arrest children, not just rescue them. Katie Byrd, the communications director for the Georgia attorney general’s office, noted that two of the missing kids were suspects in homicide cases, and one was a person of interest in another.
Plus, 11 of the kids had, in Byrd’s words, “some kind of gang affiliation.” Byrd did not specify how many juveniles were arrested in connection with the operation, but, according to numbers her office provided, it appears that up to seven warrants were issued for underage offenders.
But At Least They Rescued A Bunch Of Kids From Traffickers, Right?
One of the greatest misconceptions about child sex trafficking is that it requires a trafficker. Legally speaking, every time a person under 18 trades sex for anything of value, they have been trafficked. The statutory definition does not require coercion, force or the involvement of a pimp.
In the majority of underage sex trafficking cases, Albright said, the child is homeless, has run away from foster care or has been kicked out by their parents, often due to being queer or transgender. Many of these kids end up trading sex for money, drugs or a place to sleep because it’s their only way to survive. Under the legal definition, their “trafficker” could be a pimp but could also be a customer.
“These kids sometimes end up with folks that traffic them and sometimes end up trading sex for a place to stay or food to eat,” Albright said. Implying that all child victims of trafficking are abducted can cause policymakers to ignore critical supports like youth homeless shelters and gender-affirming housing.
“No one is saying it’s OK to pay a 15-year-old for sex,” Albright said. “What we’re saying is that law enforcement can’t be our only response. Children in these situations need a lot of support. What they don’t need is to be arrested, which unfortunately still happens in too many cases.”
Byrd said that 54 of the 78 children involved in Operation Not Forgotten had been in foster care before they went missing. Kirby, at the U.S. Marshals Service, confirmed that most of the children the agency was looking for were endangered runaways.
You’re Not Implying That Child Sex Trafficking Is Fake, Are You?
No, I’m not a monster. Child sex trafficking is real, and it’s important for America to do something about it.
It’s also important, however, to acknowledge that the actual drivers of underage sex work are far more complicated than airport posters and Liam Neeson movies would have you believe.
First of all, decades of social science research has found that the vast majority of children are abused by someone they know, usually their parents but sometimes other children or figures of authority they trust. “Stranger danger” kidnappings, on the other hand, are extremely rare — the latest estimate is 115 per year in the entire United States.
Second, the summer-long panic about missing children is almost entirely based on faulty statistics. Though it’s true that more than 400,000 children are reported missing each year, that is not even close to the number who disappear. The vast majority of these reports are misunderstandings or runaways. Roughly 10% are kidnapped by a parent as part of a custody dispute. Over 99% return home, most within a few days.
Finally, when it comes to child sexual exploitation, the problem persists for complicated, heartbreaking reasons that have more to do with the failure of America’s social safety net than the rapaciousness of its criminal sex offenders. In 2016, the Center for Court Innovation published a survey of nearly 1,000 young sex workers in six American cities. The average age at which they had left home was 15. More than half had dropped out of high school, and more than 1 in 3 cisgender female sex workers had children of their own.
The study also found, strikingly, that only 15% of the young sex workers had relationships with pimps. Leroy Lamar, the co-founder of Comprehensive Community Services, a nonprofit that works with street-based sex workers in Atlanta, said “managers” — the sex industry term — generally recruit women who are already doing sex work.
”It’s not that they saw a girl at school and they started buying her things and lured her into their car,’ he said. “The ‘Romeo’ scenario does happen, but it’s rare.” It doesn’t make sense, he said, for pimps to spend time trying to recruit random teenagers when they could just go to Fulton Industrial — Atlanta’s red-light district — and threaten the workers who are already there.
The problem with the term “trafficking,” Lamar said, isn’t that it’s false. It’s that it simplifies the complex reasons teenagers end up selling sex to survive.
“The system here is deeply, deeply flawed,” Lamar said. Georgia’s foster care system is chronically underfunded, and services for homeless teens are sparse. Lamar estimates that roughly 90% of street-based sex workers in Atlanta are functionally homeless, living out of the motels where they meet clients every night.
“Providing adequate services for kids before they end up on the streets would do a lot more for them than ‘rescuing’ them afterwards,” Lamar said.
Fine, But What About The Kids Who Were Trafficked?
Of the 65 children located during Operation Not Forgotten, six were considered trafficked and transferred to the Receiving Hope Center, a victims’ residential facility in Paulding, Georgia.
Pamela Morris, the director of youth residential services for the center, couldn’t provide details on the six victims but estimated that roughly 85% of the facility’s residents are referred there from the foster care or juvenile justice systems. Some were homeless before they were trafficked; most were poor kids of color; almost all were abused by their parents or other guardians.
“Ninety-nine percent of the kids we serve have already suffered some sort of trauma at home,” Morris said.
But while “rescuing” underage trafficking victims sounds like the end of their problems, the victims recovered in Operation Not Forgotten have a long road ahead of them. The Receiving Hope Center is a temporary facility — victims can’t stay longer than 90 days — that confines victims to the premises until they’re assessed and transferred elsewhere.
“We have children who are suicidal, homicidal or aggressive — these are skills they’ve had to learn to survive,” Morris said. “They don’t have the capacity to make decisions to keep themselves safe.”
The center offers counseling, group therapy and on-site education. After their 90 days are up, the victims will either be given back to their parents, sent back to foster care facilities or transferred to longer-term trafficking victims’ rehabilitation programs.
Georgia has only three dedicated facilities for trafficking victims, with a combined capacity of fewer than 50 beds. All three facilities are run by Christian organizations and confine victims to the premises, take away their cellphones and restrict their internet access. Morris referred to the circumstances at the Receiving Hope Center as “maximum watchful oversight.”
Lamar said many of the sex workers he encounters on Fulton Industrial have been “rescued” by law enforcement agencies and enrolled in victims’ services programs in the past, but they ended up dropping out because they could not handle the cold-turkey rules, religious programming and loss of independence.
“People need a place where they can rest and clear their head without any restrictions,” Lamar said. Since he started his nonprofit in 2007, he has seen fewer than 10 cases in which a sex worker was able to start a new life after their pimp was arrested in a trafficking sting.
For those who want a new start, he said, the real barriers are lack of child care, free education and well-paying jobs. Without those, even graduates from long-term residential programs can end up back on the streets.
“We need to keep in mind that ‘rescuing’ these kids is not the end,” Albright said. “They’re still incredibly vulnerable. A year from now the U.S. Marshals could do this again and pick up the same 39 kids.”