U.S. Marshals Office of Public Affairs/FlickrCC
The U.S. Marshals and a lineup of local law enforcement celebrated the end of an Operation Safety Net in September, announcing they had recovered 35 missing teens, about seven of whom were victims of human trafficking.
Over a dozen news articles recapped the announcement. A tweet from the U.S. Marshals about the operation was retweeted nearly 23,000 times, and got almost 44,000 likes.
But none of the law enforcement agencies involved can point to a single charge filed as a result of the operation.
And advocates for human trafficking victims say Operation Safety Net is part of a nationwide pattern of law enforcement agencies describing routine activity as anti-human trafficking operations, generating lots of publicity, but doing little to stop children from being sexually exploited.
The press release about Operation Safety Net mirrored similar announcements from U.S. Marshals in Georgia
and Southern Ohio
this fall that highlighted trafficking victims among the kids recovered. In Cincinnati, the announcement was accompanied with a press conference where Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost lectured on the “evil of modern-day slavery.”
In Georgia, the Atlanta Journal Constitution
found the Feds had cobbled together charges that created a false narrative, perhaps influenced by President Trump and the election, "that confused the public and may have harmed some people who were swept into the [story]." And. unfortunately, every incident gets swept up into the deranged conspiracy tornado that is QAnon
The headlines also give an impression of legal action taken when, in many cases, nothing happens.
“I hate these types of announcements,” said Bridgette Carr, a law professor who runs a law clinic for human trafficking survivors at the University of Michigan. “We often have lots of press releases about victims being recovered, but it’s actually very hard to get a case prosecuted in the U.S. on human trafficking. And so despite all these grand narratives that you’ll hear from politicians and others, they don’t actually put the resources into cases to prosecute them.”
Annie Murphy, spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals’ Northern Ohio district, said the Marshals didn’t focus on bringing charges. If there were any criminal investigations, Murphy said US Marshals would cooperate with local law enforcement, but she said she didn’t know of any cases being prosecuted as a result of the operation.
“Basically, [the kids are] recovered, and that’s where our responsibility ends,” she said.
The press release announcing the end of the operation listed Cleveland Police, East Cleveland Police, Newburgh Heights Police and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department as partner agencies on the operation.
Cleveland Police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia said that no charges had been brought by the Cleveland Police Department in relation to the operation, and Cuyahoga County spokesman Dale Armbruster said that, while a list of warrants was sent over, the sheriff’s office did not pick up anyone with an open warrant. Joseph David Marche’ with the East Cleveland Police said the department hadn’t charged anyone with human trafficking. Capt. Mitch Houser of the Euclid Police Department, whose chief was quoted in the U.S. Marshals’ press release, said Euclid did not bring any charges either.
“We did not file any charges during the operation,” said Newburgh Heights Chief of Police John Majoy. “We were proud to have participated in the operation and happy to see the number of those recovered.”
The Attorney General’s Office Human Trafficking Initiative said via spokesman Steve Irwin that they had no data on human trafficking prosecutions in Ohio.
“The actual charge of human trafficking is difficult to prove and is not commonly charged,” said U.S. Marshals spokeswoman Anne Murphy via email. “In many of the instances subjects are charged with such offenses as unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, interference with custody, gross sexual imposition, etc.”
But none of the law enforcement agencies involved cited any charges of sex crimes, or any offenses at all, that had resulted from the operation.
The U.S. Marshals also said they had no information on what happened to the kids recovered.
Of the 35 mentioned in the press release, Cuyahoga County spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan said 27 had been processed through the county’s children and family services.
“We were able to reunite them with their family or place them in another therapeutic or foster setting,” Madigan said.
One child who went missing from a shelter run by the juvenile court system was returned to the juvenile court, Madigan said.
The Marshals didn’t provide any information on what happened to the other eight kids recovered. Madigan speculated that they may have been turned over to other counties, or they could have turned 18 since being reported as missing.
Murphy said that, despite the lack of prosecutions, they are confident that at least seven of the kids were human trafficking victims because they had a known history of being trafficked; they said that they experienced trafficking before they were recovered; or the Marshals found evidence they had been involved in prostitution.
Kate D’Amato, an advocate for human trafficking victims and sex workers’ rights, said that sounded like a reasonable way to determine which kids fit the federal definition of trafficking victims. But she cautioned that people often misunderstand what that means.
“The general public is going to conjure a very specific narrative” when they see the term “human trafficking,” she said. They often think of a child or teenager kidnapped from a loving, stable home and kept chained out of sight by someone who sells them for sex.
But under the federal definition, anyone under the age of 18 who exchanges sex acts for something of commercial value, like money or a place to stay, is a sex trafficking victim, even if there’s no one involved but the minor and the buyer.
Some of those interactions might not even meet the legal definition for statutory rape, since the age of consent in Ohio is 16.
Without knowing whether there was a third party involved who pressured or forced children to exchange sex for cash or goods, D’Amato – who described herself as a police and prison abolitionist – said it’s hard to say whether someone should be held responsible.
“If what we’re talking about is seven young people who were not able to access basic services and engaged in survival sex ...that’s a different story,” D’Amato said. “If no one is saying they were harmed by [a buyer], that’s not a conversation we should bother with because it doesn’t honor the victim.”
The U.S. Marshals did not answer a question on whether any of the victims recovered in Operation Safety Net said anyone coerced or tricked them into selling sex.
D’Amato said the minors she’s worked with often don’t feel like the people who paid them for sex harmed them. They’re far more traumatized, she said, by the circumstances that forced them to sell sex in order to survive.
“If you’re a homeless young person, you’re experiencing serious trauma and harm, and they shouldn’t have to be trafficked” for people to take action, she said.
D’Amato says addressing child homelessness and other social issues is the best way to reduce minor sex trafficking. But that needs to be addressed by anti-poverty organizations and advocacy, not law enforcement, she said.