Thirty-nine missing children have been recovered from a suspected sex-trafficking operation in Georgia after a two-week mission by the U.S. Marshals. Nine adult suspects are now behind bars, facing 26 charges, including sex offender violations.
“The message to missing children and their families is that we will never stop looking for you,” Donald Washington, the director of the Marshals Service, said in a statement on Aug. 27.
The two-week sting, spanning 20 counties around Atlanta, was dubbed “Operation Not Forgotten.” Authorities rescued 26 missing children and safely located 13 more. Some of the children were suffering from medical and mental health issues; the U.S. Marshals noted that these vulnerable children were at particularly high risk of child sex trafficking, exploitation, and abuse.
“These missing children were considered to be some of the most at-risk and challenging recovery cases in the area,” said Washington, highlighting the impact of the mission’s success. “One missing child is worth thousands, in my mind, of fugitives that we go out and get.”
Darby Kirby, chief of the U.S. Marshals’ Missing Child Unit, agreed that the safety of the children is paramount.
“When we track down fugitives, it’s a good feeling to know that we’re putting the bad guy behind bars,” he reflected. “But that sense of accomplishment is nothing compared to finding a missing child.”
Operation Not Forgotten was months in the making. In addition to the U.S. Marshals, proceedings involved the cooperation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and numerous Georgia state and local agencies. Federal authorities also lent their resources.
Similar operations are striving toward completion in other cities nationwide.
As Georgia state prosecutors focus on the felony charges against the nine suspects—which include parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations, and drugs and weapons possession—medical and social workers are focusing on helping the 39 survivors of Operation Not Forgotten recover from their ordeal, reports WSB-TV.
Georgia’s Attorney General, Chris Carr, claimed that the cumulative measure of the mission’s success was “how many lives that we have saved and that will have a new and fresh start.”
In the wake of the U.S. Marshals’ announcement on Aug. 27, Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp praised the operation on Twitter.
“@GAFirstLady and I applaud the work of law enforcement in ‘Operation Not Forgotten,’” he wrote. “We’ll continue to work around the clock to bring an end to human trafficking and ensure the perpetrators of this evil industry know they have no place in our state.”
Human trafficking, often dubbed “modern slavery,” occurs in every U.S. state and largely targets women and children. There were 417 reported human trafficking cases in Georgia in 2019 alone, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and 11,500 reported cases in the United States at large. A “case,” the nonprofit says, can involve one or more potential victims of trafficking.
According to their statement, the U.S. Marshals Service helped recover 295 missing children in 2019.
“It’s hard to put into words what we feel when we rescue a missing child, but I can tell you that this operation has impacted every single one of us out here,” Kirby commented. “We are working to protect them and get them the help they need.”
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