Nearly 40 children who had been missing were found in Georgia as part of a two-week mission dubbed "Operation Not Forgotten," the U.S. Marshals Service announced Thursday. Many of these children were at risk for chid sex trafficking, abuse and exploitation, the law enforcement agency said.
Twenty-six children were rescued and 13 others were safely located in the mission, which also involved the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Georgia Attorney General and other state and local agencies. The children ranged in age from 3 to 17.
The operation also led to the arrest of nine people for alleged charges of sex trafficking, parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations or other related crimes.
“When we track down fugitives, it’s a good feeling to know that we're putting the bad guy behind bars. But that sense of accomplishment is nothing compared to finding a missing child," Darby Kirby, chief of the Marshals Service Missing Child Unit, said in a statement. “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. We are working to protect them and get them the help they need.”
Children were found in 20 counties around metro Atlanta area, ABC affiliate WSB reported, including Gwinnett, Fulton, Clayton and Forsyth counties.
In a press conference Thursday, Donald Washington, director of the United States Marshals Service, said a similar operation in Cleveland has recovered 15 children so far and led to the arrest of two people. Another operation to find missing children called "Operation Summer Rescue" just began in New Orleans.
“There is no more meaningful work that law enforcement does than rescuing children," Washington said Thursday. "Our children are not for sale and they are not ever forgotten.”
More than 421,000 missing child reports were sent to the FBI in 2019, according to the NCMEC. Washington said 91% of those are considered endangered runaways, of which one in six, or about 60,000, are likely to become a victim of sex trafficking.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp applauded the operation in a tweet Thursday, saying the state will "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."
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said his office has helped place these victims in rehabilitation centers.
"Sex trafficking can be in many ways a hidden crime, one that lives in the shadows," he said at Thursday's press conference. "I always go back to the fact that if we can save one child from a life of abuse or sex trafficking, we've done our job. And this operation did that for many, many children."