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Law enforcement and prosecutors explain the difficulties in bringing charges – and the hurdles in convicting traffickers.

USA TODAY

Days after the U.S. Marshals Service announced the rescue of 39 endangered children in Georgia, similar operations are ongoing in two other states as authorities target missing kids who may be victims of sex trafficking. 

In Ohio, “Operation Safety Net” has led to the discovery of 25 children between the ages of 13 and 18 in less than three weeks, the Marshals Service says. The operation is likely to continue into October, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott said.

And another two-week operation is underway near Indianapolis, Darby Kirby — chief of the Marshals’ Missing Child Unit — told USA TODAY in an email Tuesday.

These operations are a part of ongoing efforts at the local level to locate missing children rather than a coordinated nationwide sweep, Kirby said. Since 2005, the Marshals have helped recover 1,800 missing children.

Operations like Safety Net allow agents to give undivided attention to finding endangered children, U.S. Marshal’s Public Information Officer Anne Murphy said. 

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“If they were looking for kids every day, they would find kids every day,” said Suzanne Lewis-Johnson, CEO at RAHAB Ministries in Ohio, who formerly worked as an FBI agent and on a Child Exploitation Task Force running operations similar to the ones being conducted by the U.S. Marshals Service.

The results of these operations will likely continue to challenge widespread assumptions about endangered children in the U.S., Staca Shehan — a vice president with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children — told USA TODAY on Tuesday.

The recent operation in Georgia — dubbed “Operation Not Forgotten” — is a prime example. Many of the 39 children recovered were found with a parent, were kidnapped by a parent, had gone missing from child services or had fled juvenile justice, according to Kirby’s statement.

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That’s in contrast to widespread fears about child abductions at the hands of strangers, Shehan said. In reality, it is much more common for a child to become ensnared in human trafficking through the actions of a relative or after running away.

In the Georgia operation, 15 recovered children were found to be victims of trafficking — most would be considered runaways “who fell into the human trafficking realm,” according to Kirby.

Some children who run away have been lured by predators online, according to Lewis-Johnson.

Human traffickers target vulnerabilities and recruit already missing children or kids who are at home and can be lured away, Lewis-Johnson said. They’ll often look for insecurities, such as a poor home life, or even social media posts about needing money or just feeling uncared for.

Lewis-Johnson said predators groom children and offer themselves as a counterfeit solution, luring them away from home.

Shehan also said misconceptions about endangered children can make it harder to locate children when they are missing. A focus on the rare cases of abduction by stranger can make it easy for the public to overlook children who have run away or may be in danger through a parent or relative.

“Right now, I believe our children are more vulnerable to traffickers than they’ve ever been,” Lewis-Johnson said.

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