June 23, 2014

Operation Cross Country

Recovering Victims of Child Sex Trafficking

In many ways, Nicole was a typical teenager. In high school she tried cigarettes and alcohol, but she says, “I was pretty much a good kid. I didn’t really stay out late, I always came home, I never stole anything. I did what a lot of teenagers do.”

By age 17, however, things were deteriorating at home. Her parents were divorced, her father was absent, and she and her mother had an on-again, off-again relationship. That’s when Nicole met a man who took her shopping and showered her with attention. “He was gorgeous and he had charm,” she said. “I didn’t really think he was going to turn out to be…” Her voice trailed off as she tried to find words to describe Juan Vianez, the pimp who forced her into prostitution and later brutally beat her.

Nicole was 17 when she was lured into a life of forced prostitution by a man who initially charmed her but turned out to be a pimp. Transcript / Download

Now 27, Nicole is one of countless young women victimized by child sex traffickers. But with the assistance of the FBI and our partners, she and other victims are turning their lives around—and helping to put hundreds of pimps behind bars.

Operation Cross Country, an annual law enforcement action that took place last week in 106 U.S. cities, highlights ongoing efforts by the Bureau—together with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners—to address the sexual exploitation of juveniles as part of our Innocence Lost National Initiative.

Since its creation in 2003, the Innocence Lost program has resulted in the identification and recovery of approximately 3,600 minors who have been sexually exploited. This year marks the eighth Operation Cross Country, the largest such enforcement action to date: 168 trafficking victims were recovered and 281 pimps were arrested.

Operation Cross Country 8 map

"These are not children living in some faraway place, far from everyday life," FBI Director James Comey said at a press conference today at FBI Headquarters. "These are our children. On our streets. Our truck stops. Our motels. These are America’s children."

To address violent crimes against children, the FBI has established nearly 70 Child Exploitation Task Forces around the country, said Special Agent Steve Vienneau. Noting that the task forces rely on partnerships with all levels of law enforcement, Vienneau added, “the FBI could never succeed in this mission alone.” The task forces also include FBI victim specialists from our Office for Victim Assistance—men and women who play a key role in helping victims while their cases are being investigated and up to and beyond criminal prosecutions.

“We don’t enter any of our victims’ lives at a good time,” said Victim Specialist Dani Geissinger-Rodarte, who works in our Seattle Division and who was instrumental in helping Nicole get away from her pimp and later testify against him (Vianez is serving a 20-year jail term).

“A lot of victims of child prostitution have difficult backgrounds,” Geissinger-Rodarte explained, so victim specialists must assess the girls’ needs before they can begin to help them. “You start with the basics: Do you feel safe at home? Do you have clothing? What’s your interaction with your parents? You assess everything,” she said, “and then you make referrals to community service providers to fill that void or address those issues.”

Sometimes, it’s not easy to convince young victims they need to get away from those who are exploiting them. Nicole, like many trafficked juveniles, was totally dependent on her pimp. “I didn’t have money, I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have a bank account, I didn’t have my own car,” she said. “I didn’t have anything. So if I left Juan, I left everything.”

In 2007, after a vicious beating that left her in the hospital with serious injuries, Nicole met Geissinger-Rodarte—and over time came to trust her. Eventually, Geissinger-Rodarte connected Nicole with community services and helped her to see there was a future beyond prostitution. “Our job is to meet the victim where they are,” said Geissinger-Rodarte. “When they are ready for help, they need to know we are there.”

Today, Nicole is an honors college student on her way to a psychology degree. She has a job, a driver’s license, a good credit rating, and she just bought a new car. “I am very, very proud of myself,” she said.

Being There for Victims

When the FBI investigates crimes, federal law requires that we offer assistance and services to victims. Through our Office for Victim Assistance, the Bureau has approximately 130 victim specialists working in every FBI field office in the country, and many of them regularly deal with children who have been sexually exploited.

While investigators on our Child Exploitation Task Forces make cases against pimps and others who commit violent crimes against children, victim specialists assess the needs of the young victims and help them get assistance and services. Often these specialists represent a lifeline to minors who have nowhere else to turn.

“A lot of these girls feel like they are stuck,” said Dani Geissinger-Rodarte, a victim specialist in our Seattle Division who has been working with sexually exploited children for more than a decade. “But I know that if they keep in touch with me, that somewhere down the road they are going to be ready for services, and we can connect them.”

“We can’t just make our case against the traffickers and not address the significant issues that face the victims,” said Special Agent Steve Vienneau, who works in our Violent Crimes Against Children Unit at FBI Headquarters. “If we fail to help these young people, they end up just as vulnerable or even more vulnerable to being trafficked again.”