Under the guise of stopping sexual predators and human trafficking, the FBI coordinates annual sting operations with local law enforcement agencies.
The FBI states its “primary goal is to recover children” through Operation Cross Country (OCC), an operation it has conducted for over a decade.
The line between victim, bystander or perpetrator is blurry for these operations, states Reason Magazine.
“The vice agents pretty much just took me to my parent’s house and dropped me off,” said a 17-year-old when swept up in OCC. “Never offered any counseling, any emotional/physical support. They just wanted to get me out of their way.”
When the agents realized she was only 17, they converted her from prostitute to “victim” in their tally and simply took her home.
Swept up again in the 2017 OCC, having turned 18, she was arrested for prostitution (a misdemeanor) and possessing a small quality of marijuana (a felony in her state).
“I’m a single mother with a felony and I will be labeled as a loser and a whore for the rest of my life,” she said.
The young women’s actual experience stands in contrast to FBI Director Christopher Wray’s announcement of OCC XI results as it “isn’t just about taking traffickers off the street. It’s about making sure we offer help and a way out to these young victims who find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of abuse.”
“Mere months ago, she was being exploited. Today, for the same behavior, she’s a criminal,” concluded Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason Magazine’s associate editor.
While 2016’s OCC X resulted in the arrest of nearly 1,000, fewer than a dozen were booked on federal charges. None of these federal charges involved children being sex trafficked by force or threat, according toReason Magazine. This result compares to an average of more than 7,000 felony charges of all types per month in Los Angeles County.
Not all federal programs have such results. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says law-enforcement agencies have identified at least 9,400 juvenile victims of online sexual exploitation since 2013. In the preceding decade, there were about 5,000 such identifications, which officials call “rescues” because the children are often removed from abusive environments, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Based on work by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agent, Jim Cole, ICE founded a victim identification program outside Washington with a high-tech computer lab, where analysts digest tips, examine evidence and send reports to the field.
The effort has earned praise from advocates and from victims and their families, who say survivors cannot begin to recover until they are discovered.
“The psychological injuries are lifelong and affect their functioning in family life, work life, everything,” said Carol Hepburn, a lawyer who has represented more than a dozen people who were sexually exploited as children. “It means so much to the families and the victims to know that law enforcement had been looking for them. Jim has been a big part of that effort.”
“We had been approaching this all wrong,” said Cole, a former policeman and U.S. Army intelligence officer. “I saw how impactful this all was, how much they appreciated how hard we tried to find her [a victim]. I realized we need to be looking at these cases in a victim-centered way. I also thought it would not only help us find the victims, but also the abuser.”
According to Cole, identifying the victims had multiple benefits. The children got badly needed psychological support, they were removed from hostile environments, and the offenders were often apprehended.