A total of 150 missing children ranging in age from 3 to 17 were recovered in January and February during a joint law enforcement operation, authorities in Tennessee said Wednesday.
The task force recovered the children – some of whom are potential victims of human trafficking – in three sweeps throughout the state.
The situations of the children recovered vary widely, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) Assistant Special Agent in Charge Shelly Smitherman said, ranging from children that left home during difficult situations, some who were found with non-custodial family members to children “dealing with abuse or exploitation.”
A “number of arrests” were made during the operation, dubbed “Operation Volunteer Strong,” US Marshal for Tennessee’s Western District Tyreece Miller said, without going into detail as to how many people were arrested.
Two people had active warrants and another person, a kidnapping suspect, was arrested, according to a TBI news release.
Denny King, the US Marshal for the Middle District of Tennessee, said he could not imagine being a parent and having a missing child,
“We can’t give up,” King said. “We need the public, we need the media, we need our law enforcement partners and the other children’s services departments to not give up on these children.
“We don’t know what damage might have been done, but we know the ones that we have recovered during this operation are in a safe environment today.”
King noted that one child in his district had been missing for 460 days and was located after a tip to local law enforcement.
Four children were potential human trafficking victims, TBI said in its news release. A fifth was identified as “a human trafficking victim, resulting in a still-active investigation by a Mississippi local law enforcement agency and FBI.”
Smitherman explained that TBI analysts compiled intelligence files in the fall on 240 children that they were hopeful could be found.
She said the TBI, US Marshals and Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) tracked down leads and in January sent teams out for surge operations in each of Tennessee’s three districts. Eight children were found in other states. The operations began January 4 and ended February 26, the TBI said in its news release.
Of the 150 children, 93 were DCS children, most of whom were girls, DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said.
“The sheer number, 150, is praiseworthy, but even more exciting is the reality behind each of those 150 numbers is a child or youth whose life and future might be forever changed,” Nichols said. “The work is transformational. We cannot stop, and there’s nothing more worthwhile.”
Children who were in the DCS system before going missing will return to the care of the agency, which also will provide support like counseling services to the other children.
Efforts to find the remaining 90 missing children are ongoing, officials said.