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Back to Archives | Back to March 2013 Contents 

Collaboration to Recover U.S. Exploited Youth: The FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative

By Janice Mertz, Supervisory Special Agent, Violent Crimes Against Children Section, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, D.C.

Through the efforts of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, more than 2,300 children have been located and recovered, and more than 1,200 subjects have been convicted. Multiple sentences of 25 to 40 years have been imposed, including nine federal life sentences.

Drop cap Since 2003, FBI agents around the United States have partnered with state and local police officers to recover more than 2,300 children who have been forced into prostitution.

In June 2003, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division/Violent Crimes Section/Crimes Against Children Unit developed the Innocence Lost National Initiative in coordination with the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS), and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The initiative targets criminal enterprises involved in the commercial sexual exploitation of children through prostitution. Thirteen cities throughout the United States were initially identified as having a high incidence of child prostitution. These FBI field offices were encouraged to form Innocence Lost Task Forces or working groups with local law enforcement to address the threat within their communities.

Today, with the merging of task forces with cyber personnel from the FBI’s Innocent Images National Initiative, the number of Child Exploitation Task Forces throughout the United States has grown to 66—one in each of the FBI’s 56 field offices, with the remaining task forces located within FBI resident agencies around the United States. Full-time task force personnel from local agencies assigned to FBI offices are afforded overtime, vehicles, and cellphones; and upon completion of a successful background investigation are granted a Top Secret clearance and Title 18 Special Deputation Authority. These task force officers learn the latest in technological, investigative, and legal trends to further the mission of recovering missing and exploited children.

The Innocence Lost National Initiative is based on a victim-centered approach that addresses the child prostitution threat by utilizing multidisciplinary teams including federal, state, and local officers, the FBI’s victim specialists, and local social service personnel to offer victim services once the child is recovered. The goals of the initiative are straightforward:

  1. Recover missing and exploited children and prosecute those responsible for their victimization.
  2. Disrupt and dismantle the criminal enterprises responsible for the victimization of children through prostitution. These investigations range from one pimp having one or two victims in his “stable” to multiple victims ranging in age, ethnicity, and socio-economic backgrounds.
  3. Provide training to investigators. To date, more than 1,300 persons have been trained at NCMEC.

As these investigations often begin at the local level, awareness and collaboration of the entire team is essential, from the patrol officer through the prosecution team. While the patrol officer does not need to be a subject matter expert, basic situational awareness, as well as understanding the cues to look for during a traffic stop or an encounter, can make the difference in a child’s life and lead to a successful prosecution of an offender. This was illustrated in an investigation conducted by the Sacramento, California, Field Office’s Innocence Lost (now Child Exploitation) Task Force, which resulted in the recovery of a 15-year-old victim and a 31-year prison sentence for the offender.

A Sacramento patrol officer encountered the young victim in a fast food restaurant and questioned her. Having recently attended a training conducted by the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force, he was keenly aware of the signs of commercial sexual exploitation and further pushed for answers with the young girl. Noticing the bruising around her eye, he asked if someone had forced her into prostitution. The girl hesitantly nodded her headed. The officer contacted a member of the Sacramento Field Office’s Innocence Lost Task Force, who quickly responded to the scene. The personnel assigned to the task force are trained to interview exploited children and recognize the needs of these victims, as well as extract the information needed to successfully prosecute the case. Unbeknownst to the patrol officer at the time, the young girl had just escaped a brutal sexual assault and beating from her pimp. The officer, along with other law enforcement personnel, testified to their roles at the subject’s trial in federal court. The task force officer assigned to the Innocence Lost Task Force testified as an expert witness regarding the pimp and prostitute subculture. Were it not for the patrol officer’s astute observation and his willingness to go the extra step, the child may not have been recovered from the streets, left only to be subjected to the continued cycle of brutal victimization.

These task forces around the United States also participate in a three-day enforcement action known as Operation Cross Country to combat the domestic sex trafficking of children. To date, six operations have been held, encompassing a total of 8,500 law enforcement personnel in 68 cities from around the country. They have resulted in the recovery of 328 child victims and the arrest of 429 pimps. The seizure of guns, cash, and vehicles was also realized during the operations.

The FBI has a supervisory special agent detailed to NCMEC to serve as a liaison between the FBI task forces and NCMEC’s Child Sex Trafficking Team (CSTT) and case managers. The CSTT is located within the Case Analysis Division at NCMEC and provides technical assistance to all levels of law enforcement to aid in the identification, location, and recovery of missing and exploited youth involved in sex trafficking.

The IACP, in collaboration with the FBI, is currently producing a series of five-minute videos for patrol and first responding officers to raise awareness of the signs of commercial sexual exploitation through prostitution. These videos will be distributed to local law enforcement agencies throughout the United States by May 2014.

For more information regarding the Innocence Lost National Initiative or to participate in a task force in your area, contact your nearest FBI office or the FBI Violent Crimes Against Children Section at FBI Headquarters at 202-324-3000. ♦

Please cite as:

Janice Mertz, "Collaboration to Recover U.S. Exploited Youth: The FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative," The Police Chief 80 (January 2013): 24–25.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 3, March 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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