Recovered Missing Children in Tennessee Were at Risk of Sex Trafficking, TBI Agents Say


Some of the missing 150 children that members of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation helped recover in a special operation are now in state custody after Tennessee officials said they were at risk for sex trafficking.

State officials announced this at a press conference last week.

TBI Assistant Special Agent Shelly Smitherman said some of these children had escaped harsh living conditions.

“Some of these children left their home to run away from some situation or conflict. Some were found with non-custodial parents, or family members. Some fled from state custody. Some were dealing with abuse or exploitation,” Smitherman said.

David Jolley, a U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee — citing National Center for Missing and Exploited Children statistics — said one in six endangered runaways end up involved in sex trafficking.

U.S. Marshal Denny King, with the Middle District of Tennessee, and U.S. Marshal Tyreece Miller, with the Western District of Tennessee, said law enforcement agents recovered children in their respective areas involved in human trafficking.

TBI Director David Rausch said at the press conference that hundreds of children in Tennessee go missing every month.

Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols, meanwhile, said 93 of the 150 recovered children recovered were already known to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services — mostly girls, previously declared as dependent and neglected.

“If children were already in DCS custody at the time they went missing [then] they will still be in our custody,” Nichols said, adding they were between the ages of 3 to 17.

“Their needs will be assessed. They will get some mental health treatment and some regular health treatment.”

According to a TBI press release, the United States Marshals Service also participated in the effort to recover these children.

“Planning for the effort, named ‘Operation Volunteer Strong,’ began in the fall of 2020, with operation efforts launching on January 4,” according to the press release.

“After identifying 240 missing children statewide, TBI intelligence analysts compiled thorough 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.”

During the operation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Virginia, provided research and analytical support, the press release said.

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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]
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