By Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON (CNS) – A recent nationwide sweep of child traffickers by the FBI should highlight that child prostitution is closer to home than many realise, said Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House.
Ryan called the undercover sting operation – which took place in 29 US cities at the end of February – a “great stride forward” but he also said it was just a start.
“Enormous work still needs to be done,” he said.
The FBI sweep, called Operation Cross Country III, was part of the bureau’s Innocence Lost Initiative that was started in 2003 to crack down on the sexual exploitation of children.
The operation, which took place during three nights, led to the release of 48 youths between the ages of 13 and 17 forced to work as prostitutes and the arrest of 571 trafficking suspects. Federal agents working with local law enforcement officers arrested the suspects on both federal and state prostitution-related charges. The teens were placed in the custody of local child protection agencies.
“We continue to pursue those who exploit our nation’s children,” said FBI Director Robert Mueller in a statement. “We may not be able to return their innocence but we can remove them from this cycle of abuse and violence.”
Daniel Roberts, the FBI’s deputy assistant director, told The Associated Press the majority of the child prostitutes found in the sting operation “are what they term ‘throwaway kids,’ with no family support, no friends. They’re kids that nobody wants; they’re loners. Many are runaways.”
Ryan, at the helm of the international Catholic organisation that serves homeless and runaway youths, is keenly aware that young people living on the streets are “muscled into the sex trade.”
He said what surprised him the most about the FBI sweep – to his knowledge the largest of this type of crackdown – was the lack of media coverage about it.
The broad scope of the operation should “remind child advocates in the US that (child prostitution) is not just an international phenomenon” but something that happens in this country, he said.
And although he was pleased with the crackdown’s success, he said that “none of us should take comfort in the more than 500 arrests” of child traffickers because there are “thousands more out there.”
“Every day for years and years” young people in the country’s sex trade are “physically, sexually and emotionally brutalised,” he told CNS on March 12.
In an as-yet unpublished opinion piece, Ryan wrote about the FBI operation, saying the bureau should “receive the resources and direction” to put an end to child prostitution. He also said state and federal law enforcement agencies should not just target child traffickers but those who pay for sex with the child prostitutes.
“In almost nine years,” he said, “there has not been a single conviction for purchasing sex with a child under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act.”
Ryan also said the scope of the problem is so large that the broader community must take action.
“Our streets are filling up with homeless youths,” he told CNS.
As he sees it, Covenant House and other similar organisations are part of the solution to help “keep our kids safe from the peril of the streets.” But they can’t do it alone, he said.