Twenty-four runaways and missing children were located in May during a joint effort by law enforcement agencies and child advocacy groups in El Paso, Texas, officials first announced Tuesday.
Beginning in mid-May, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Texas Department of Public Safety led the effort dubbed “Operation Lost Souls,” marking the first time more than 15 child advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies joined forces in El Paso to locate missing children reported to the National Crime Information Center.
Of the two dozen children found, 18 were females and six were males. Three of the missing children were discovered in Mexico, one in Puerto Rico, one in California and one in Oklahoma. The remaining children were discovered in Texas.
“Unfortunately, all too often children are subjected to a myriad of negative influences such as abusive home environments, homelessness, substance abuse and online enticement that causes them to run away,” Erik P. Breitzke, special agent in charge of HSI in El Paso, said during a press conference, according to Border Report. “This operation is one example of how the El Paso law enforcement and services provider community works together to keep our streets safe.”
Most of the children were returned to their families, and every found child was given health and psychological screenings.
“Many times, these children cannot help themselves; they are being exploited and often times living in less than desirable conditions,” said Orlando Alanis, regional director of the Department of Public Safety for West Texas. “Child sex trafficking and human trafficking are serious concerns for the El Paso community, the state of Texas and the nation.”
“Sometimes we find them with family members, and it becomes a civil matter, that’s why we are reporting them as located and not necessarily returned,” Alanis said. “We find them in situations they were taken by family. If they’re in a good situation, we just leave them there because then it becomes a civil matter between families.”
Authorities said at least one of the children was a victim of sexual assault and several investigations have been opened into possible sexual assault and human trafficking.
“Runaway children are at high risk of becoming trafficking victims and falling prey to individuals who want to hurt them and jeopardize their health and safety,” Breitzke said in a statement.
“I commend the law enforcement agencies and non-governmental organizations that participated in this operation that very well may have helped save lives,” he continued. “We will continue to collaborate and work tirelessly to identify and recover missing children.”
To report a missing child or information on online solicitation and exploitation of a minor, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children hotline at 1-800-843-5678 or online at missingkids.org.
To report human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.