The US Marshals Service along with several other local, state, and federal agencies have recovered a combined total of 50 children in Ohio, Hawaii, and West Virginia.
The results of Operation Autumn Hope, conducted in Ohio, and Operation Shine the Light, conducted in Hawaii, were announced Monday in separate press releases from the Marshals Service and Hawaii’s Department of the Attorney General.
Operation Autumn Hope was conducted throughout October by the marshals offices in southern Ohio and southern West Virginia in coordination with the Ohio attorney general’s office and the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force. The multiagency task force recovered 45 missing children and located an additional 20 children to verify their well-being, per requests of local law enforcement. There were 179 arrests made for suspected human trafficking, among other charges.
One of the recoveries involved a 15-year-old male who is suspected of being involved in multiple shootings and a homicide. According to the Marshals Service press release, the teen had two warrants for his arrest; he was located, and marshals seized a loaded firearm during the search.
“My thanks to all personnel who have stepped up for this operation,” said Peter C. Tobin, US marshal for the Southern District of Ohio, in the press release. “These are the same personnel who hunt down violent fugitives every day. I’m incredibly proud of them and pleased that they were able to apply those same skills to finding missing children. I know Operation Autumn Hope has made a difference in a lot of young lives.”
Operation Shine the Light took place Friday through Sunday in Honolulu and was executed by a joint task force made up of the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General, the Hawaii Department of Human Services, the US Marshals Service, the FBI, the US Secret Service, Homeland Security Investigations, the Honolulu Police Department, the Susannah Wesley Community Center, Hale Kipa, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the National Child Protection Task Force.
Five children were located over the weekend, all ages 16 to 17.
With virtual schooling and quarantines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, children have been spending more time online. According to the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General, the pandemic has exacerbated child trafficking and the dangers presented by sex traffickers and online predators — both in person and online.
“It is an undeniable and unfortunate reality that this pandemic has highlighted the increased risk of exploitation for our most vulnerable youth. It takes collaborative strategy, swift action, and an utmost care for these youth in order to respond to their needs,” said Hawaii Department of Human Services Director Cathy Betts in the press release.
In addition to the added hazards from the pandemic, the high cost of living in areas like Hawaii can lead to runaway children being more vulnerable to child trafficking and sexual predators.
“Runaway youth are at a high risk of [child trafficking], especially in a high cost of living area such as Hawaii. It’s difficult for them to afford basic needs such as food and shelter. Traffickers take advantage of this fact, exploiting vulnerable young people by forcing them to exchange sex for a place to stay or something to eat,” said Lucia Cabral-DeArmas, acting special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations Honolulu field office, in the press release.
After the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 became law, the Marshals Service established its Missing Child Unit. To date, 75% of the cases investigated have resulted in the recovery of missing children, and 72% of those recovered were found within seven days after the marshals received the case. The US Marshals Service has recovered more than 2,000 missing children since 2005.
The US Marshals Service did not respond to requests for further information at the time of publication.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated after a response from the Hawaii Department of Human Services to reflect the fact that Operation Shine the Light took place in Honolulu, with the lead agencies being the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General and the Hawaii Department of Human Services.