As agent Michael Glennon of the FBI Human Trafficking Task force rushed into the hotel room in suburban Detroit, all he could hear were the screams of protest from the petite blonde being detained by one of his team members. The undercover officer had arranged a date with the young woman advertised as “Lil’ Barbie,” who investigators feared was underage. This was part of the Innocence Lost initiative, a nationwide sting operation aimed at identifying and rescuing children from pimps and predators.
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"Lil' Barbie" and her pimp were both taken into custody as part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ongoing effort to fight trafficking of children. Together with local law enforcement agencies like the Michigan State Police, the FBI is dedicated to stemming the tide of children who are sold for sex by criminals.
“Those are our main targets, the ones that have the 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids that are walking the street, that are out there on the Internet,” said Glennon.
Despite the city’s well-documented economic woes, the selling of sex in Detroit is still a thriving business. For this reason, the FBI created human trafficking task forces in 26 major cities. The task force brings together the federal, state and local law enforcement, including victim specialists who pull underage children off the streets and out of the hands of predators.Video: Sex slaves: A growing industry in the U.S. (on this page)
For "Lil’ Barbie" Tina — like a majority of those who end up working in the sex trade — a life of sexual servitude in Detroit began in childhood at a very young age.
At age five, Tina came home from kindergarten and her mother told her to go into the bedroom, where two men raped her. Her mother, who was addicted to drugs, had sold her to the neighborhood men to feed her habit. "I didn't even understand the difference between boys and girls at that point." After surviving decades of being beaten, raped, abused and exploited by pimps and predators, Tina struggled to find a way out of prostitution.
"I've been stabbed in the face with a screwdriver, burned on my back with an iron and thrown out of a car on the highway. All, because I didn't want to work in this life anymore," shared Tina.
A friend referred her to Detroit's Alternatives for Girls, one of the few non-profit organizations in the country that provides long term therapy and counseling to help get young women out of cycle of violence of being prostituted. "They saved my life," says a grateful Tina, who currently works at Alternative for Girls as a mentor.
Within a four-hour span on the first day of the operation, the Detroit Task Force recovered four underage girls, made some 30 arrests and initiated over a dozen cases in three long days.
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“It feels like progress, but it feels like there’s so much more out there that we just don’t know,” said Glennon. In explaining why, at the end of the day, many victims like Tina decide to return to the street and ultimately their pimps, he says, “You realize this may be the only thing that they have. This may be the only family that’s there for them. This may be the only way that they feel they can survive.”
Operations like these are costly. Beyond the array of manpower needed to run such an operation safely, Michigan State Police Sergeant Ed Price, who partners with the federal task force, estimates it will take an additional two weeks just to process all of the information that they have gathered over the weekend. But the hard work and long hours will eventually pay off by evolving into state and federal prosecutions.
“It’s very worth it. They guys and girls that do this job, we do it for the kids. We do it because it needs to be done.”