Last week, the government sent out a press release that sounded like great news on the surface: “U.S. Marshals Find 39 Missing Children in Georgia During ‘Operation Not Forgotten.’” The press release explained how a government operation had rescued 26 children, “safely located” 13 more and made nine arrests. The story was broadcast from places like the Associated Press, the New York Times and People Magazine and why not? It sounds like a pretty big win.
All the more so because “human trafficking” has been a cause de jour in many circles lately, with thousands amateur internet sleuths acquiring a new interest in exposing the dark underbelly of human trafficking following a series of high-profile cases that include some genuine horror stories (Epstein and his island) and some bogus conspiracy theories (the Wayfair situation.) In fact, a lot of social media chatter went on to question why the story of a huge human trafficking ring bust wasn’t bigger news.
One possible reason? This particular story turns out to be quite a bit more complicated than the headline makes it sound, and reveals a lot about the American public’s misconception of both human trafficking and the way it’s dealt with in this country. Over at HuffPo, journalist Michael Hobbes has put together a great explainer of what really went down in Georgia last week, showing how the reality of sexual abuse, human trafficking and missing kids is exceedingly complex and the fight against it must likewise be shrewd.
“This is not the big trafficking bust everyone thinks it is,” Erin Albright, an anti-human trafficking and law enforcement consultant told HuffPo. “Any time a child is being harmed and is connected with meaningful support, that’s good. But at the same time, we have to recognize that these stories are not what they look like at first.”
First up, yes, Operation Not Forgotten set out to find 78 “critically missing” children and successfully found 65 of them. But only 15 of those children were suspected of being victims of trafficking and of those, only six were confirmed. The rest were “recovered” from a variety of different situations, which could have been at a friend’s house, with a parent who didn’t have custody or just maybe just on the streets. The other 26 simply had their cases closed, which could mean a different agency found them before the government did or, possibly, the child was never actually missing in the first place.
In fact, the operation took place in several states over a period of a couple of weeks, collecting children from various homes. There was no single sex trafficking ring that got busted in a dramatic raid. There were no raids at all, actually.
Only one person was charged with sex trafficking. Some of the children themselves ended up getting arrested for various charges (a couple were suspects in a homicide case), although it was unclear just how many of the recovered children were arrested. That’s because contrary to public opinion, human trafficking rarely involves a boss pulling the strings. In the U.S., anytime a minor trades sex for something of commercial value, they are considered to be trafficked — there doesn’t need to be any trafficker, force or coercion involved. So any minor who sleeps with someone else in exchange for money, drugs, a place to stay or something to eat is considered to be a trafficked person, even though that doesn’t necessarily fit the public imagination of human trafficking with cages and handcuffs.
None of this means that we shouldn’t care about the news coming out of Georgia. Obviously, it’s a good thing that authorities are helping put kids into stable environments, wherever they may have been found. But human trafficking is a real problem and we do the fight against it and the victims of it a real disservice when we get the facts wrong.
Hobbes’ whole piece goes into greater detail and is well worth reading.