Many of the 27 children located by the U.S. Marshals Service in Virginia were runaways, sometimes found with other family members, and teens in the foster care system, federal officials said.
A news release from the Department of Justice on Friday said that 27 children in Virginia were recovered as part of an operation over five days with federal agents, local law enforcement, state social services officials and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
However, while the cases were announced together as part of a larger operation, there is no suspected criminal enterprise linking the cases and each is independent of one another, said Peter Marketos, Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“A lot of (the cases) have their unique set of circumstances,” Marketos said. Many of the children “either ran away or go into what they perceived as a less dangerous situation than what they were in.”
None of the cases involved a child being abducted by someone they did not know, and many were “essentially kids in a bad situation,” added Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Frank Schermer for the Western District of Virginia.
“This is not part of a child smuggling ring or anything of that nature,” he said.
‘Out of harm’s way’:US Marshals Service leads recovery of 27 missing children in Virginia
Here’s what we know:
What happened in Virginia?
Agents from the U.S. Marshals Service assisted local law enforcement, Virginia’s Department of Social Services and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to recover the 27 children, the Justice Department said Friday.
Six other children reported missing were found to be in the custody of their legal guardians during the operation, the statement added.
Most of the children were in their late teens and many ran away from foster care situations, Schermer said.
The operation involved 27 separate incidents that were carried out over the course of five days in Virginia, he added. Agents typically got information about the cases from the state’s social services department and the missing children’s center and helped in locating the child, Schermer said.
“It’s definitely not a situation where those 27 kids are found in one house,” Angela Aufmuth, the executive director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s analytical programs, said of similar cases like the one in Virginia.
In some cases, federal authorities were involved because a child had gone missing from one jurisdiction and fled to another, Marketos added.
A few of the children were in situations where they could have fallen victim to sex trafficking, added Schermer. In at least one case, two individuals were charged with obstruction for lying about housing one of the children, Schermer said. Drugs and a pistol were found at the house, he added.
Other recoveries part of ‘concerted effort,’ but no ‘spike’ in missing children cases
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said in a statement that the U.S. Marshals Service this year has recovered more than 440 missing children.
The U.S. Marshals last week announced the recovery of 45 missing children, resulting in 179 arrests, during an operation across Ohio. It was the second such mission in the Buckeye State, following an August effort that led to the discovery of 25 missing children in less than three weeks.
Also this year, an operation in Georgia led to the recovery of 39 children in August and one in September found eight missing children in Indiana.
Since 2005, the U.S. Marshals have recovered more than 2,000 missing children, including a 75% success rate in received cases in the last five years, according to the release.
A 2015 law, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, also enabled the U.S. Marshals Service to assist local, state and federal officials in locating missing children when requested, Schermer noted.
Schermer said, however, that operation is a result of increased capacity and shifted priorities of the U.S. Marshals Service, not an increase in missing children cases.
It’s not “necessarily a spike (in missing children cases) but a more concerted effort on this area that needs attention,” added Marketos.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University research group that analyses federal law enforcement data, child sex trafficking prosecutions have actually fallen in recent years.
Most missing children cases are ‘endangered runaways’
In 2019, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children assisted law enforcement and families with more than 29,000 cases of missing children. More than 90% of those cases were “endangered runaways,” defined by the Center as “a child under the age of 18 who is missing on his or her own accord and whose whereabouts are unknown to their parent or legal guardian.”
The Center says these children are “highly vulnerable” and may be homeless while they are missing. In many cases, children who run away feel unsafe at home or face abuse or family conflict, among other factors, according to the Center.
“These kids who do go missing and have these vulnerability already … are much more vulnerable to people who don’t have their best interest at heart,” Aufmuth said.
According to Aufmuth and the Center’s data, 1 in 6 endangered runaways in 2019 were likely victims of sex trafficking. In most cases, that involves a child over time being groomed into sex trafficking by one individual, Aufmuth said.
Still, people often have an image in their head of a missing child case being an abduction, which is “extremely rare and a very small percentage of missing child operations,” Aufmuth said.
Contributing: Steve Kiggins, USA TODAY