NASHVILLE, Tennessee (WSMV) — A joint operation between the U.S. Marshals Service, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation resulted in those agencies finding 150 missing children across the state.
Planning for the effort, named Operation Volunteer Strong, began in fall 2020 with operation efforts launching on Jan. 4.
After identifying 240 missing children statewide, TBI intelligence analysts compiled information and potential leads on each, which designated law enforcement teams carefully pursued during two-week blitzes in each of Tennessee’s three grand regions.
U.S. Marshals said at least two of the missing children were identified as a possible human trafficking victim.
“Whatever we can do to help these children from falling into dangerous situations, we will do,” said David Jolley, U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
“I can’t imagine being a parent and not knowing where my child is, or can you imagine being that child, maybe feeling forgotten? I can’t imagine those circumstances,” said Denny King, U.S. Marshal for the Middle District of Tennessee.
King said one of the recovered children in Middle Tennessee was identified as a potential human trafficking victim, resulting in a still active investigation.
King said one child was found who had been missing for 460 days.
“We can’t give up. Missing kids out there, we will continue to look for you,” said King.
Tyreece Miller, U.S. Marshall for the Western District of Tennessee, said one of the recovered children from there was also identified as a potential human trafficking victim, resulting in a still active investigation by law enforcement in Mississippi and the FBI.
Miller said another child was recovered during an active kidnapping investigation in Memphis, resulting in the arrest of the suspect on multiple charges.
“We are grateful to be part of this effort, but our work is not done,” said Miller. “Our commitment to finding our missing children will not end.”
Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said 93 of the children found are DCS children, most of them girls.
“We are committed to providing the services these children deserve,” said Nichols. “The works is transformational. We cannot stop and there in nothing more worthwhile.
“Our mission ‘That guilt shall not escape, nor innocence suffer’ is more than a motto. It reminds us every day of what really matters,” said TBI Director David Rausch. “In this operation, it was the innocence of children who may need help or love, a new start or just someone safe to talk to. At TBI, we’re committed to playing a part in that kind of work for the long haul and look forward to continuing these types of operations in the future.
“It is critical for families and children to know that even though this operation has ended, we will continue to look for you.”
A look at the blitz in each of Tennessee’s grand divisions:
East Tennessee: Jan. 4-15
Authorities identified 86 missing children of which 56 were recovered, five of them in other states.
Of the 56 children recovered, authorities located 27 of them in the weeks leading up to the operation, and three after it concluded.
Law enforcement identified three of the recovered juveniles as potential human trafficking victims, resulting in a still-active TBI investigation.
“The U.S. Marshals are committed to assisting state and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children to help prevent their falling victim to crimes of violence and exploitation,” said Jolley. “We will use every resource at our disposal to help find these missing children.”
Middle Tennessee: Jan. 25-Feb. 5
Authorities identified 72 missing children, of which 42 were recovered.
Of the 42 children recovered, authorities located 29 of them in the weeks leading up to the operation and 13 during the operation.
Law enforcement identified one child as a potential human trafficking victim, resulting in a still-active TBI investigation.
We can’t give up. We need the public, the media, and all law enforcement to not give up,” said King. “If you see something, or know something, say something. We cannot give up and stop searching for our most vulnerable and those who cannot help themselves.”
West Tennessee: Feb. 8-12 and Feb. 22-26
Authorities identified 82 missing children, of which 52 were recovered, three of them in other states.
Of the 52 children recovered, authorities located 33 of them in the weeks leading up to the operation, 18 during the operation and one after it concluded.
While searching for missing children, authorities located two adults with outstanding warrants.
Law enforcement identified one of the recovered juveniles as a human trafficking victim, resulting in a still-active investigation by a Mississippi local law enforcement agency and FBI.
Authorities safely recovered a child during an active kidnapping investigation, resulting in the arrest of the suspect.
“I hope this operation changes the course for 150 young lives and leads them to the path of opportunities every child deserves,” said Miller. “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.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, VA, provided research and analytical support during the operation.
“Operation Volunteer Strong is a great example of how working together, we can find missing children and get them the help they need to move forward,” said John Clark, NCMEC’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “We’re thrilled to see so many missing children recovered in Tennessee and we thank all the agencies involved for their dedication to child protection.
The TBI serves as the clearinghouse for missing children in Tennessee. In this role, the agency provides support to local law enforcement agencies, raises awareness of missing children and prevention efforts, and administers high-profile efforts to locate missing children in dangerous situations through its Endangered Child Alert and AMBER Alert programs.
“Many people don’t realize this, but hundreds of children go missing in our state every month,” said TBI Director David Rausch. “From runaway that may leave their home out of desperation or despair, to those entangled in a custody battle, every single one of them deserves a fighting chance, and that’s why they also deserve our best work to help them.”
Most of the children recovered during the operation will receive services through the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, which may include placements in foster homes, group homes or other specialized care.
“We are grateful that missing children have been recovered and are now receiving the services and treatment they need to stay safe and healthy,” said DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols. “This operation was truly a collaboration and it’s strengthened our relationship with our law enforcement partners. Working together, the agents, marshals and DCS case managers put in countless hours to track down leads and locate these missing children.”
Investigators ask, if you know anything about where a missing child might be located, that you give them a call.
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