A joint effort by state and federal agencies has led to the recovery of 150 children who went missing in Tennessee.
The U.S. Marshals Service, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found the children, who included several human trafficking victims, in a sweep that began in early January and ended in late February, according to a TBI news release Wednesday.
The agencies identified 240 missing children and asked for help in finding those not yet recovered.
“We can’t give up. We need the public, the media, and all law enforcement to not give up,” Denny King, U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Tennessee, said in a statement. “If you see something, or know something, say something. We cannot give up and stop searching for our most vulnerable and those who cannot help themselves.”
The sweep began in East Tennessee, where 86 missing children were identified; 56 of them were recovered, including five who were in other states.
Forty-two children were recovered in a sweep that covered the middle part of the state.
The final sweep was the western part of Tennessee. This effort recovered 52 children, three of whom were in other states.
During the western Tennessee sweep, officials recovered a child during an active kidnapping probe, which resulted in the arrest of a suspect.
“The U.S. Marshals are committed to assisting state and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children to help prevent their falling victim to crimes of violence and exploitation,” David Jolley, U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee, said in a statement. “We will use every resource at our disposal to help find these missing children.”
“I hope this operation changes the course for 150 young lives and leads them to the path of opportunities every child deserves,” said Tyreece Miller, U.S. marshal for the state’s Western District.
“Our efforts should also serve notice to those who prey on society’s most vulnerable that these children are not forgotten,” Miller said. “Investigations will continue and the next knock at the door could be for you.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Virginia, supported the joint state and federal effort, which was dubbed “Operation Volunteer Strong.”
“Operation Volunteer Strong is a great example of how working together, we can find missing children and get them the help they need to move forward,” John Clark, the center’s president and CEO, said in a statement in the TBI news release.
“We’re thrilled to see so many missing children recovered in Tennessee and we thank all the agencies involved for their dedication to child protection,” Clark said.
TBI Director David Rausch said he hopes the sweep highlights the issue of missing children in the state.
“Many people don’t realize this, but hundreds of children go missing in our state every month,” he said in a statement. “From runaways that may leave their home out of desperation or despair, to those entangled in a custody battle, every single one of them deserves a fighting chance, and that’s why they also deserve our best work to help them.”
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has stepped in to provide services for recovered children who need them.
“We are grateful that missing children have been recovered and are now receiving the services and treatment they need to stay safe and healthy,” DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said.
“This operation was truly a collaboration and it’s strengthened our relationship with our law enforcement partners,” Nichols said. “Working together, the agents, marshals, and DCS case managers put in countless hours to track down leads and locate these missing children.”
The Marshals Service has been aggressive in its recent actions to recover missing children. In November, it announced that a monthlong effort to find missing children in Ohio led to 179 arrests by the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, according to a news release.
That crackdown comes on the heels of “Operation Safety Net” in August, which rescued more than 25 children in Ohio.
“When we track down fugitives, it’s a good feeling to know that we’re putting the bad guy behind bars. But that sense of accomplishment is nothing compared to finding a missing child,” Kirby said in a news release concerning the Georgia operation.
“It’s hard to put into words what we feel when we rescue a missing child, but I can tell you that this operation has impacted every single one of us out here. We are working to protect them and get them the help they need,” Kirby said.
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