July 29, 2013

FBI rescues three child prostitutes in Maine

In Operation Cross Country, a nationwide roundup of child sex traffickers, 150 people are charged with pimping.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Three children in Maine were among the 105 nationwide who were rescued as part of an FBI effort targeting child sex trafficking, which also resulted in 150 people being charged with pimping.

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Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, speaks during a news conference about Operation Cross Country at FBI headquarters on Monday in Washington. The FBI says the operation rescued 105 children who were forced into prostitution in the United States, including three in Maine.

The Associated Press

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The FBI worked with local police departments and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as part of Operation Cross Country, an annual roundup of child sex traffickers.

Special Agent Gregory Comcowich, spokesman for the Boston field office, said the three children rescued by agents attached to that office were found in Maine.

Comcowich would not identify the town where the three were located or any other circumstances surrounding the case, including where the three children are from. He said the local police department has been working on the case, which remains under investigation. Nobody has been charged yet in connection with the three children, he said. He would not say which police department the FBI worked with.

"As a result of Operation Cross Country, (the three children) were identified to us," Comcowich said. The bureau launched stings and undercover operations across the country to identify and arrest pimps and prevent children from being sold for sex.

Portland police said that agents did conduct a sting in Greater Portland in recent days, but apparently did not identify any local victims of child sex trafficking during the effort.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said his department routinely does work on cases of sex trafficking in conjunction with the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking, an interagency task force, but that none of the department's current cases was part of the FBI's Operation Cross Country.

Because the cases involve violations of the Mann Act -- crossing state lines to promote prostitution -- the FBI can launch an investigation and file charges in federal court.

Operation Cross Country was conducted from Friday through Sunday in 76 cities across 47 FBI divisions nationwide.

"Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across America," said Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division.

According to an FBI news release, operations dating to 2003 have recovered more than 2,700 children from the streets and led to 1,350 criminal convictions and seizures of more than $3.1 million in assets. Ten of those convicted received life sentences.

According to the release, the operations usually begin with local police targeting truck stops, casinos, areas known for street-level prostitution and websites that advertise dating or escort services. Arrests are usually for violating local and state prostitution laws. That can lead to information about organized efforts to prostitute women and children across many states, which is a federal crime, the release said.

The FBI said it had been monitoring Backpage.com and other websites as prominent online marketplaces for sex. Backpage.com said that it was pleased by the raids and that if the website were shut down to the advertisements, the ads would be pushed to sites that wouldn't cooperate with law enforcement.

The young people in the roundup, almost all of them girls, ranged in age from 13 to 17.

The largest numbers of children rescued were in the San Francisco Bay and Detroit areas, along with Milwaukee, Denver and New Orleans. The operation was conducted under the FBI's decade-long Innocence Lost National Initiative. The latest rescues and arrests were the largest such enforcement action to date.

Social media is a common denominator in many of the cases.

Last year, five members of the Underground Gangster Crips contacted teens at school or through Facebook, DateHookUp.com or other social networking sites, enticing the girls to use their looks to earn money as prostitutes.

In earlier sweeps, child prostitution victims have been recovered at major sporting events -- including the NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl, Hosko said.

In the 1990s, gangs took control of street prostitution across America; that forced pimps to move girls into sporting events where security existed, said Dr. Lois Lee, founder and president of Children of the Night, a nonprofit that has rescued 10,000 children from prostitution since 1979.

Hosko said the plight of the young people often goes unreported to authorities because the children in many instances are alienated from their families and are no longer in touch.

Pimps operate wherever vulnerable potential victims can be found. Some are being recruited out of foster care facilities, Hosko said.

For the past decade, the FBI has been attacking the problem in partnership with the private group, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

John Ryan, the head of the center, called the problem "an escalating threat against America's children."

The Justice Department has estimated that nearly 450,000 children run away from home each year and that one-third of teens living on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.

Congress has introduced legislation that would require state law enforcement, foster care and child welfare programs to identify children lured into sex trafficking as victims of abuse and neglect eligible for protections and services.

"In much of the country today, if a girl is found in the custody of a so-called pimp she is not considered to be a victim of abuse, and that's just wrong and defies common sense," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month. Wyden co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@mainetoday.com

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