Tennessee officials rescue 13 missing children at risk of being trafficked: ‘America’s ugly secret’

Federal and local officials have rescued 13 previously missing children, whom authorities determined to be at risk of human trafficking, in and around Memphis.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), which worked with the U.S. Marshals Service, Homeland Security Investigations, Memphis Police Department and Tennessee Department of Children’s Services on the two-day mission called “Operation Not for Sale,” said officials were focused on locating children at risk of being trafficked. 

“There may be children coming from an environment where they have been sexually abused, previously, in their life. But that might be their norm,” Foster Care Institute founder and director, Dr. John DeGarmo, who works with child welfare agencies across the globe, told Fox News Digital when asked what makes a child at risk of being trafficked. 

Those children may be coming from broken homes or foster care and “seek out love” elsewhere because they have not found it in their current lives. Those children can be easily “misled by predators” and “groomed” under false hopes and promises of better lives, DeGarmo said.

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Police might identify these kinds of children based on their own records of families with histories of domestic violence or sexual abuse. They might identify children who have unique tattoos or bands, or even new and expensive clothing, according to DeGarmo. 

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In 2021, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received more than 17,200 reports of child sex trafficking from all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. They also received 25,000 reports of runaway children – with one of six likely to become human trafficking victims, according to the organization. 

“It’s America’s ugly secret,” DeGarmo said.

Weeks prior to Operation Not for Sale, intelligence analysts identified children who were at “high risk in regard to human trafficking,” TBI said in a press release. Then, between Nov. 2 and 3, six search teams went to 56 different locations in their efforts to locate the missing children they had identified as high-risk.

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Authorities located 12 juvenile victims ranging from 11 to 17 years old, as well as one 2-month-old infant, during the operation.

“Every day the United States Marshals Service hopes we have the opportunity to utilize our authority in finding missing, endangered, or abducted children in our country. This operation, in which our efforts continue, has already shown great success,” U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Tennessee Tyreece Miller said in a Nov. 9 statement. “We are grateful to work alongside such committed partners to bring children in West Tennessee home.”

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HSI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Ross “Clint” Cannon said the operation “highlights the necessity of a unified effort to locate and find missing children in Western Tennessee.”

TBI estimates that between 500 and 600 children go missing every month in Tennessee.

TBI Director David Rausch said in a Nov. 9 statement that “[m]ultiple disciplines are necessary when dealing with the sensitive issue of human trafficking due to the immense trauma that these victims suffer.”

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“We are excited about the outcomes and look forward to more operations of this nature with our partners,” he said of Operation Not for Sale.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said, “[H]uman traffickers exploit and endanger some of the most vulnerable members of our society and bring unimaginable harm to their victims.”

“I am very proud that the Memphis Police Department was part of this successful operation and thankful for the cooperative work done by all of the agencies involved in safeguarding at-risk children,” Davis continued. 

TBI continues its active and ongoing efforts to search for and locate other missing children.

Authorities are asking anyone with information about suspected human trafficking in Tennessee to contact the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-55-TNHTH. 

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