WASHINGTON -- Authorities rescued 105 children who were forced into prostitution and arrested 150 pimps and others in a three-day law enforcement sweep in 76 American cities, the FBI said Monday. The victims, almost all girls, range in age from 13 to 17.
Three of the children were recovered in Washington state and nine people were arrested, suspected of abuse to a minor and related crimes. The FBI said it also interviewed 55 adults who were engaged in prostitution in Washington and recovered large amounts of cash, two guns, a knife, a taser and several stolen identification cards.
The local sting took place last Wednesday through Sunday in Everett, Federal Way, Kirkland, Lakewood, Renton, Seattle, Tacoma, Tukwila and throughout King County.
Noel Gomez is a former Seattle prostitute who now works with teens in the King County Juvenile Detention Center. Gomez said that the typical age for a girl entering prostitution, known on the street as “the life” is just 14.
Every morning Gomez goes through the list of girls police have brought into lockup and tries to meet with them.
“Today there’s eight I need to go see,” she said in an interview at her office on Monday morning.
Gomez offers emotional support and challenges the girls who equate love with bondage to ask themselves a simple question about their pimp: “If you weren’t out there making money, would he be with you? And the answer is ‘no’ because pimps are pimps. That’s what they do,” Gomez said.
Gomez said she’s worked with police on two previous versions of Operation Cross Country, like the one announced Monday that put Seattle area pimps behind bars and freed child prostitutes facing a lifetime of abuse and fear.
“You’re always worried about your life, basically if you’re going to live through the next day because every time you go into a hotel room or meet with a ‘john’ you don’t know if they’re going to kill you,” she said.
Gomez considers every girl she convinces to get out, to be a life saved. It might take months or it might take years. It took Gomez 15 years to get out, now she offers a lifeline to girls trying to do the same.
The FBI said the victims are being offered help with job training, housing, counseling, and medical and education assistance.
The largest numbers of children rescued were in San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and New Orleans. The campaign, known as Operation Cross Country, was conducted under the FBI's Innocence Lost initiative.
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Social media are a common denominator in many of the rescues.
Last year, five members of the Underground Gangster Crips contacted teens at school or through Facebook, DateHookUp.com or other online social networking sites, enticing the girls to use their looks to earn money through prostitution.
As for websites, Liz McDougall, the general counsel for Backpage.com, said that if that site were shut down to the advertisements in question, the information that can lead to the rescues would be lost to law enforcement because the ads would be pushed to "offshore uncooperative websites.”
"We feel very strongly that we're doing the right thing, and we're going to continue to do the right thing and we congratulate the FBI and everybody with the task forces involved in the program," said McDougall.
In earlier sweeps, child prostitution victims have been recovered at major sporting events -- including the NCAA Final Four and Super Bowl, Hosko said.
In the 1990s, gangs took control of street prostitution across America; that forced pimps to move girls into sporting events where security existed, said Dr. Lois Lee, founder and president of Children of the Night, a nonprofit group that has rescued 10,000 children from prostitution since 1979.
Hosko said the plight of the young people often goes unreported to authorities because the children in many instances are alienated from their families and are no longer in touch.
Pimps operate wherever vulnerable potential victims can be found. Some are being recruited right out of foster care facilities, Hosko said.
For the past decade, the FBI has been attacking the problem in partnership with a private group, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
John Ryan, the head of the center, called the problem "an escalating threat against America's children.”
The Justice Department has estimated that nearly 450,000 children run away from home each year and that one-third of teens living on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
Congress has introduced legislation that would require state law enforcement, foster care and child welfare programs to identify children lured into sex trafficking as victims of abuse and neglect eligible for protections and services.
"In much of the country today, if a girl is found in the custody of a so-called pimp she is not considered to be a victim of abuse, and that's just wrong and defies common sense," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month. Wyden co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.