By Kevin Johnson | USA Today
The FBI announced Monday the arrests of 150 people and recovery of 105 children involved in child prostitution rings across the country, including in Knoxville and Memphis.
The 76-city sweep, conducted in the past three days, represents the largest such law enforcement action focused on children forced into sexual slavery, federal authorities said.
Assistant FBI Director Ron Hosko, head of the bureau's criminal division, said the children ranged from 13 to 17 years old. The youngest of the victims allegedly was being offered by her father, who also was accused of being involved in videotaping his daughter's sexual encounters.
"We have victims whose new normal is sexual abuse," Hosko said. "We are trying to take this crime out of the shadows and put a spotlight on it."
In operations involving 230 law enforcement agencies, authorities either made arrests or child recoveries from Atlanta to Los Angeles. The weekend action, called Operation Cross Country, also is the latest in a national campaign that has helped recover 2,700 children since 2005.
In Tennessee, authorities arrested seven people in Knoxville and three in Memphis, where three children were rescued.
The arrests come on the heels of a dozen state law changes that went into effect July 1. The reforms increase penalties for sex traffickers, allow gang charges against them and let child victims testify out of courtrooms via closed-circuit TVs, among other changes.
State officials also released a 97-page report this month that found rehabilitative services for survivors still need improvement. The study recommended that victims receive faster face-to-face visits and suggested the Department of Human Services and Department of Children's Services dedicate staff members specifically to help trafficking victims.
Separate from the FBI sting, police in Nashville last week arrested a Florida man on prostitution, trafficking and rape charges after an undercover investigation. Police arrested Jeffery L. Dale, 27, after responding to an online advertisement that featured a 17-year-old runaway.
'A persistent threat'
Hosko, with the FBI, said the children rescued across the nation were often being offered on Internet sites and at truck stops, casinos and street corners. Generally, they were recruited from foster care or group homes.
In addition to at least one parent, the alleged pimps included individuals acting alone and some with affiliations to organized crime. In many cases, Hosko said, the children "don't see any avenues of escape" from their handlers.
John Ryan, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, called the criminal activity "an escalating threat against America's children."
Ryan said the law enforcement action "is saving lives."
Criminal charges are expected to be brought in both state and federal courts and will involve a variety of offenses, including human trafficking and coercion.
"Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across America," Hosko said. "This operation serves as a reminder that these abhorrent crimes can happen anywhere and that the FBI remains committed to stopping this cycle of victimization and holding the criminals who profit from this exploitation accountable."