The US Marshals Service located 39 missing children in Georgia, and arrested nine suspects on charges that ranged from sex trafficking to parental kidnapping.
Fifteen of the children were deemed victims of sex trafficking, federal authorities said in a press conference Thursday.
Twenty-six of the missing children were rescued by authorities, and the remaining 13 were found safe after officers confirmed their locations in person.
Federal authorities found 39 missing children in Georgia in a two-week operation where they arrested nine people on a variety of charges, including sex trafficking, registered sex offender violations, drugs and weapons possession, parental kidnapping, and custodial interference.
Of those 39 children that had been reported missing, authorities rescued 26 of them. The remaining 13 were found to be safe after a welfare check, and law-enforcement officers confirmed their locations in person and were able to "ensure their wellbeing," the US Marshals Service said in a statement.
Local and federal authorities told reporters in a press conference on Thursday that 15 of the children were victims of sex trafficking, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
US Marshals Director Donald Washington said that the ages of the 26 rescued children ranged from 3 to 17, and they had been missing for periods ranging from several weeks to two years.
Authorities dubbed the two-week rescue effort "Operation Not Forgotten," which was carried out by the Marshals' missing child unit, along with a fugitive task force, state and local Georgia authorities, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"These missing children were considered to be some of the most at-risk and challenging recovery cases in the area, based on indications of high-risk factors such as victimization of child sex trafficking, child exploitation, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and medical or mental health conditions," the Marshals Service said in a statement.
Washington said at a press conference that the FBI has received some 421,000 missing children reports, 91% of which involved "endangered runaways."
Though the risk of child sex trafficking in America is real, it's rarer than many people think. For instance, the federal government filed just 145 new human trafficking cases in 2019.
Those new cases filed in 2019 brought the number of active federal cases to 606, with a total of 1,592 victims identified, according to a Human Trafficking Institute analysis of federal criminal and civil cases. Of those trafficking victims, 828 were children — 808 were victims of sex trafficking and 20 were victims of forced labor.
The report also noted that the public's perception of sex trafficking, such as "abducting strangers from store parking lots or kidnapping tourists from hotel rooms," is not usually accurate. The report said 23% of sex trafficking victims in 2019 were victimized by people they knew, 37% were lured by traffickers online, 20% were lured through fraudulent job offers, 8% were found on the street, and 2% at shelters.
The problem of child sex trafficking in the country has also recently been overshadowed by false and baseless conspiracy theories such as QAnon, which have commandeered and undermined legitimate efforts to rescue children or raise awareness about child trafficking.
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