A collaborative federal and local law enforcement effort in Tennessee resulted in the discovery of 150 missing children aged 3 to 17 between January 4 and February 26, officials announced Wednesday.
A task force headed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) located the missing children during three “sweeps throughout the state” conducted as part of “Operation Volunteer Strong” over the nearly-two month period, according to a press release from TBI.
The operation was a combined effort between TBI, the U.S. Marshals, and the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. The operation also resulted in a “number of arrests” in connection with the children.
The situation of each child varied greatly, with cases ranging from children who ran away from difficult situations at home to others who were “dealing with abuse or exploitation,” according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Assistant Special Agent in Charge Shelly Smitherman.
Four of the children discovered during the operation were found to be potential human trafficking victims, with a fifth identified as “a human trafficking victim, resulting in a still-active investigation by a Mississippi local law enforcement agency and FBI.”
Investigative efforts took place starting in fall 2020, and recovery efforts began on January 4 in “two-week blitzes” in three regions of Tennessee, TBI said.
The first sweep was executed in East Tennessee, recovering 56 of 86 missing children. More than half were found before the official operation, five were recovered in other states and three were located after the operation had already ended.
The second sweep was located in middle Tennessee, where authorities found 42 out of 72 missing children. Similar to the first sweep, 29 were discovered prior to the operation and 13 were found during the operation.
The third sweep took place in West Tennessee, where 52 of 82 identified missing children were found. Three of the children were found outside of Tennessee, 33 were located before the operation, and 19 during the operation. One child was recovered after the operation ended.
“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,” Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said, CNN reported. “The work is transformational. We cannot stop, and there’s nothing more worthwhile.”
“I hope this operation changes the course for 150 young lives and leads them to the path of opportunities every child deserves,” Tyreece Miller, U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Tennessee, said in the press release. “Our efforts should also serve notice to those who prey on society’s most vulnerable that these children are not forgotten. Investigations will continue and the next knock at the door could be for you.”
Denny King, the U.S. Marshal for the Middle District of Tennessee, said he could not fathom being the parent of 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.”
King continued, “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.”