A few short weeks ago, amid stories about the pandemic, another story was making headlines – the recovery of 39 missing children in Georgia. Their rescue was part of "Operation Not Forgotten," spearheaded by the United States Marshals Service (USMS) in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and state and local agencies.
The Director of the USMS, Donald Washington, called the operation's success a message to children, saying, "There is no more meaningful work that law enforcement does than rescuing children. Our children are not for sale, and they are not ever forgotten."
The two-week operation culminated in the rescue of 26 children from child sex traffickers, as well as the safe location of 13 other missing children. Investigators arrested nine criminal associates on charges related to "sex trafficking, parental kidnapping, registered sex offender violations, drugs and weapons possessions, and custodial interference.
Staca Shehan, Vice President of the Analytical Services Division at NCMEC, said of the operation, "The majority of the missing children who were recovered were endangered runaways, children missing from care, missing children being exploited through sex trafficking, and children abducted by family members. People often think the largest number of missing kids were abducted by strangers, but that's actually one of the least likely scenarios to occur. Operations like Not Forgotten highlight the more likely types of missing children that need everyone's focus."
While NCMEC does not necessarily see a direct correlation between COVID-19 and an uptick in missing child cases, we have gotten reports where COVID-19 and its effects have played a significant role in specific missing child cases. NCMEC is aware of reports in which some children have run away from home in frustration with the "stay-at-home" restrictions; cases where children run from group homes out of concern for catching COVID-19; and cases of parents with visitation rights not returning their children due to concern of potential exposure to COVID-19.
Children may also be at greater risk for online exploitation. A new development observed by NCMEC is that some child traffickers adjusted to buyers' reluctance to meet in-person to engage in commercial sex. Some traffickers are now offering options for subscription-based services in which buyers pay to access online images and videos of the child.
"We've been adapting to the challenge of searching for missing children during the COVID-19 era… Even a national pandemic is not going to stop our organization from assisting these kids. We have the technology, the commitment, and a dedicated staff," says John E. Bischoff, vice president of NCMEC's Missing Children Division. "We are overjoyed with the safe recovery of so many children and appreciate the continued partnership with the USMS."
Echoing Bischoff, NCMEC President and CEO, John Clark, who was appointed the ninth Director of USMS from 2006-2010, said, "Operation Not Forgotten is an example of the good work of helping save and protecting children that NCMEC's partnership with law enforcement does every day. By working together, we move towards an America where child sex trafficking does not exist. As the President and CEO of NCMEC and a former head of USMS, I ask you to join hands with us today so that together, we can put an end to child sex trafficking—because no child should ever be sold for sex in our country."
NCMEC is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that works with law enforcement to provide information and resources related to missing children's cases. We also offer parents and educators free resources to help children understand how to be safe and responsible digital citizens. To support creating these critical education materials for children, please consider signing up for monthly donation to NCMEC by clicking here.