The FBI rescued 79 minors involved in prostitution last weekend in what has to be the most heart-wrenching story of the week. Unfortunately, officials say there is no guarantee that those who were picked up and taken to shelters will not soon again find their way back to the sex trade.
The Bible urges parents to "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6) The inverse seems to be true, as well. Few, if any, children willingly enter prostitution. Often by the time they are rescued, however, their formative years have been so damaged by abuse and exploitation that they know no other way to live, and so they revert to the way they were trained up.
Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told CNN, "A lot of these kids feel like they are in love, and therefore many of them will go back, so it's not only important that they get help, but they need a specialized kind of help." It's also doubly important that runaway and troubled children are rescued quickly, and that the pimps, organized crime leaders and customers who demand their services are sought out, prosecuted and punished in ways that disrupt what has become a growing underground industry.
Last weekend's three-day nationwide sweep was part of an effort known as Operation Cross Country 6. It involved the services of more than 2,500 state, local and federal officers in 57 cities. In addition to the 79 teenagers rescued, 104 alleged pimps were taken into custody.
We applaud law enforcement for this effort. Few crimes are as disturbing or as damaging to young lives, not only physically abusing them but robbing them of self-worth and their potential to build successful futures.
Unfortunately, the effort isn't nearly enough. FBI officials and child advocates told CNN an estimated 100,000 children are pulled into prostitution each year. Often, these are children who run away from home because of abuses or other difficulties. Members of the sex trade lure them by offering help and friendship when they are most vulnerable, then lock them into situations from which there is no escape.
Since 2003, operations such as the one last weekend have netted more than 1,000 convictions related to child exploitation, with many of these resulting in long prison sentences. Also, more than 2,000 children have been rescued. But many thousands more remain stranded.
The rescue operation is not far removed from the much larger problem of international human trafficking, which involves slave labor as well as the sex trade. The most recent report on this problem from the U.S. State Department said it can be found "in many licit and illicit industries or markets, including in brothels, massage parlors, street prostitution, hotel services, hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, health and elder care, and domestic service, among others."
Clearly, this is more than just a law-enforcement problem. It is a community tragedy that can be successfully countered only through communal vigilance, keen observation and a willingness to speak out.
As the FBI noted, rescuing these teenagers is only the beginning of the long process of redeeming their lives. So much is lost through this horrific, and growing, crime. Countering it should be a national priority.