Operation Cross Country: Rescuing Children and Raising Questions

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) just released its results from the seventh Operation Cross Country (OCC), which is part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative to “address the growing problem of child prostitution.” Innocence Lost began in 2003 and, to date, the efforts have recovered more than 2,700 minors involved in prostitution, convicted 1,350 people who exploit children in prostitution, and seized $3.1 million in assets.

While every one of those children rescued is indeed a victory in the fight against those who exploit children, the numbers are relatively small compared to the claims regularly made as to how big this problem is in the United States.

The average number of children rescued per year is 270. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates, “As many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the United States.” Concerned Women for America’s paper, “Children in Prostitution: How Many Are There and What to Do?” explains the faulty research behind this estimate, but let’s take the DOJ’s number at face value. If, indeed, there could be as many as 300,000 sexually exploited children in the commercial sex industry, then the government has not yet determined an adequate way in which to find them.

In the latest highly-publicized OCC, – interestingly timed when the DOJ is under fire on so many fronts – 106 children were recovered, and 152 pimps, madams, and those who exploit children and adults through prostitution were arrested. However, this operation went on for three days, in 76 cities nationwide, utilizing 47 FBI divisions, and more than 3,900 local, state, and federal law enforcement officers from 230 agencies.

If there are 300,000 minors at risk for sexual exploitation, shouldn’t all of the manpower and resources aimed at rescuing them have been able to find more? Shouldn’t they have been able to find even one or two in some of the major cities?

The FBI divisions and local law enforcement personnel in Baltimore, Cincinnati, El Paso, Jacksonville, Knoxville, Louisville, Miami, Newark, New York City, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Springfield, and Washington, D.C., did not find one single minor in prostitution.

The Charlotte, Cleveland, Columbia, Dallas, Jackson, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and San Antonio collaborative efforts found only one minor in prostitution in each of their areas.

No pimps were found in Boston, Houston, Milwaukee, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tampa, and Washington, D.C.

And yet more pimps were arrested than the number of minors found. In some cities, where no minors were found, pimps were arrested, which means they had to be exploiting someone. In many of the cities, there were adults found in prostitution who were arrested, too. If the pimps were exploiting them, hopefully they will be recognized as trafficking victims and receive services.

But if the numbers are similar to the New Orleans division, then maybe many of the adults do not have pimps. In New Orleans, they recovered six minors, while they arrested six pimps and 64 adults in prostitution. The pimps they arrested were not all in the same jurisdictions where the minors were recovered, so they were not necessarily their pimps and were probably pimping some of the adults.

In some of the cities, law enforcement recovered minors but found no pimps. Do those minors have pimps? The question sounds ludicrous, but a very interesting DOJ-funded study from 2008 of minors involved in prostitution in New York City found that 90 percent of those minors interviewed had no pimp and, in a second study in Atlantic City, they found 86 percent of minors interviewed had no pimp.

As to the $3.1 million in seized assets since 2003, that averages about $2,300 from each of the 1,350 people they have prosecuted and convicted for sexual exploitation. It’s difficult to say why more assets have not been seized. Is it because the pimps do not have much, or is it because the states do not have legal provisions to seize assets? Another question of interest is whether or not the assets seized were provided to the victims as restitution?

These are just a few of the questions raised by the news about the latest OCC. The fact of the matter is, no one, especially government entities, has any idea how big the problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children is in the U.S. If the government is going to promote the number of 300,000 minors at risk of sexual exploitation, then it needs to do a much better job of finding more of them. Less than one percent recovery in ten years is not a triumph.

There is another possibility, though. Could it be the estimate is way too high? Perhaps there are not as many commercially sexually exploited children in the U.S. as feared. And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

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