Federal agents rescued 21 children who were forced into prostitution and arrested 28 pimps and others across California as part of a three-day law enforcement sweep in 76 American cities, the FBI said Monday.
The victims, almost all girls, range in age from 13 to 17.
The largest numbers of children rescued were in San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver and New Orleans. The campaign, known as Operation Cross Country, was conducted under the FBI's Innocence Lost initiative.
In the Bay Area, the FBI found 12 children and arrested 17 suspected pimps and others, followed by San Diego with five children save and six pimps arrested. Los Angeles had two children rescued and three pimps arrested, data show. In Sacramento, two children were rescued and two pimps were arrested.
"Child prostitution remains a persistent threat to children across the country," Ron Hosko, assistant director of the bureau's criminal investigative division, told a press conference.
The San Francisco Division of the FBI, as well as local and state law enforcement agencies, participated in the operation from July 24 through July 28, running a total of 17 local operations, the feds said in a press release.
"Oakland in particular is known for child prostitution, a place people bring children to exploit them," OPD Lt. Kevin Wiley said.
Oakland police discovered two sexually exploited children walking the streets of International Boulevard in broad daylight, Wiley said. They also arrested two men on charges of pimping.
"These are criminals--serious criminals--who beat down people, rob people, shoot people," Wiley said. "It's an avenue of crime now, like drug dealing was in the '80s. Human trafficking and child
prostitution is the new crime in the 21st century, especially in Oakland."
Nola Brantley, who represents the organization Motivating Inspiring Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Children, says the number of children taken off the streets is just a drop in the bucket.
Brantley worries what "rescued" really means.
"I want to know where those 12 girls are right now," Brantley said. "Sometimes 'rescued' means by the time we get the report they'll already be revictimized by a pimp or trafficker."
The FBI said the campaign has resulted in rescuing 2,700 children since 2003.
The investigations and convictions of 1,350 have led to life imprisonment for 10 pimps and the seizure of more than $3.1 million in assets.
For the past decade, the FBI has been attacking the problem in partnership with a non-profit 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 the appropriate 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 bill with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
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