Sixteen teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 17 were recovered by law enforcement in a crackdown on child trafficking surrounding the Super Bowl last weekend. The FBI said the teens included high school students and young people reported missing by their families.
"It is the most significant operation we've had around a big event," Michael Osborne of the FBI's Violent Crimes Against Children Unit told ABC News. "This is the most recoveries we've had at one time."
Officials said the vast majority of the rescued teens were girls.
Osborne said he calls taking the young people off the street "recoveries," because the children are not charged. In child exploitation cases like this, law enforcement officials said operations are designed to remove the young victims from a life of exploitation and abuse.
"These recoveries are victim-focused," Osborn said. "Many times these young people are kept in this life by pimps using sexual, physical and emotional abuse."
The law enforcement effort to help the young victims goes well beyond providing overnight food, clothing and shelter, Osborne said. Over the course of the operation, the FBI's victim specialists' provided 70 women and children referrals to health care facilities, shelters, and other programs. Osborne said the FBI works with social service specialists to provide for the long-term needs of the victims as well.
"We provide everything we can to try to pull them out of their situation, like education information and family counseling," Osborne said. The family counseling, he explained, is needed because many of the young girls who end up being exploited are runaways. "We know there is a very close correlation between runaway girls and prostitution."
What is striking in many cases, he said, is that the young victims themselves don't think they deserve the help. "They don't think they are worth saving," Osborne said. "Sometimes we are the only people in their lives who haven't given up on them."
The crackdown also identified and arrested 45 pimps and their associates. The arrests came in New York, New Jersey and in Connecticut in the days leading up to the Super Bowl.
Osborne said the FBI teamed with state and local law enforcement to develop intelligence about the movement of pimps and prostitutes into the vicinity of the Super Bowl, as they do with any big event, like a big game or convention. That's because pimps and "facilitators" move girls around from state to state to find a large gathering of potential customers.
"High-profile special events, which draw large crowds, have become lucrative opportunities for child prostitution criminal enterprises," said Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "The FBI and our partners remain committed to stopping this cycle of victimization and putting those who try to profit from this type of criminal activity behind bars."
Osborne said many times, prostitutes are not walking the streets anymore, but rather their services are offered on internet sites by their pimps.
"No doubt about it, we had a lot of internet activity in the past week," Osborne said.
The FBI's Super Bowl operation efforts were part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative that was established in 2003 by the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, in partnership with the Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to address the growing problem of child prostitution.
To date, the FBI and its task force partners have recovered more than 3,100 children. The investigations and subsequent 1,400 convictions have resulted in lengthy sentences, including 11 life terms and the seizure of more than $3.1 million in assets.
"Through partnerships, enhanced as a result of this operation, we hope to build a lasting framework that helps the community address this problem," said Michael Harpster, chief of the FBI's Violent Crimes Against Children Section. "It's easy to focus on this issue in light of a high-profile event, but the sad reality is, this is a problem we see every day in communities across the country."