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U.S. Marshals Exaggerated A Recent ‘Child Recovery’ Sweep in Michigan. Here’s Why That Matters.

Experts say playing up the risk of sex trafficking fuels anxiety and criminalization.

Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by frankiefotografie/Getty

A one-day targeted law enforcement sweep aimed at rescuing “victims of sex trafficking” in Michigan became national news after the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) announced in an Oct. 3. press release: “new USMS Child Recovery Unit recovers 123 children.” The New York Post, among other news outlets, was quick to report on what its headline called a “sex trafficking operation.”

In the sweep, uniformed officers armed with lists of missing children went door to door in the Detroit area, some in protective vests, knocking and asking questions. One goal of the sweep, dubbed Operation MI Safe Kid, was to find “hidden victims,” according to Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Sarah Krebs.

But a closer look reveals that the U.S. Marshals’ press release and, to a greater extent, the resulting news coverage, was misleading. The 123 children were not “recovered,” as the Detroit News later reported. More than 100 were with their parents, relatives, guardians, or at school, according to the Michigan State Police, and the agency is still investigating if any trafficking occurred.

Law enforcement anti-trafficking operations often attract strong media interest, especially if they appear to involve helping children trafficked for sex. But that coverage can distort the public’s understanding of sex trafficking, according to Amy Farrell and Rachel Austin of Northeastern University, who have studied the issue. Misrepresentation of trafficking, they write, “becomes problematic when government actors such as police and political figures use these distorted images as their reference to make decisions about arrests and victim services.”

Kate D’Adamo, a consultant at Reframe Health and Justice who advises anti-trafficking groups, said exaggerating the risk of trafficking often diverts attention from more pervasive dangers. “Obscuring the lives of young people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, and who are often being failed by the system with flashy headlines means we end up serving the headlines and not those young people,” she told The Appeal.

For the sweep, law enforcement agencies, including the Michigan State Police (MSP), the Detroit Police Department, and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, worked from lists of children reported missing to try to identify those who could have been trafficked. Once officers located a child, Det. Sgt. Krebs said, the child was questioned: “Who did they stay with? Did somebody pay for them to stay somewhere? Did they do favors for them? Did they give them drugs?” Krebs described a 14-year-old that officers found in an abandoned house, who hadn’t eaten in days. “Those are the types of kids we are dealing with and that’s really sad.”

In its own statement, Michigan State Police said all the children located were “interviewed about potential sex trafficking crimes and, as a result, three new sex trafficking cases were opened.”

But that’s not the number that made headlines.

U.S. Marshals’ “123 children” release, for starters, included 16 children from a previous Marshals operation, the Detroit News later reported. Law enforcement did make contact with 107 children during the Sept. 26 sweep, and most were found with their parents, relatives, guardians, or at school. For some, their case files marking them as “missing” were simply out of date. The 14-year-old boy found in an abandoned house, for instance, had previously been placed in foster care, and the abandoned house was reportedly his childhood home. Police said he had been previously removed from his mother’s custody after his father was charged with homicide.

The marshals, when asked by The Appeal about whether the three cases of suspected trafficking they announced in their release were substantiated or if any others had been identified, referred these questions to the Michigan State Police and other “investigating agencies,” including the FBI. “The USMS does not participate in sex trafficking investigations, but assists other agencies for the sole purpose of locating/rescuing missing juveniles who may be victims in those investigations,” said Dave Oney, a spokesperson in the marshals’ public affairs office. The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development referred those questions to the marshals; spokesperson Darryl Madden said they provided “[m]erely background information and research.” The FBI did not respond to inquiries by press time.

As to the three trafficking cases the Michigan State Police said were opened, they did not confirm whether that meant three children were trafficked. MSP public affairs manager Shanon Banner said, “The investigation will determine that.”

Michigan State Police participated in a similar operation in June, also looking for missing children in an attempt to find victims of trafficking. Again, media reports overstated the operation’s connection to human trafficking. “51 children safe from clutches of harm, human trafficking after Genesee County sweep,” a local Fox affiliate’s headline announced. “Investigators believe that five to as many as 10 of the children were either involved with or could have fallen into sex trafficking,” the station reported at the time. As in the September operation, the vast majority of those children located in what Genesee County police called a “rescue” were not rescued from trafficking situations. MSP told The Appeal they did not have any updates about the children.

Since 2016, Michigan State Police have been co-leaders of a local Joint Anti-Trafficking Taskforce with the Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Division, receiving a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant is meant, in part, to help police identify victims of trafficking. According to current DOJ guidelines for joint anti-trafficking task force grants, applicants are discouraged from using funding “primarily for investigative operations where there are no clearly defined victims.” An MSP grants coordinator said MI Safe Kid was not a task force operation but confirmed that Justice Department-funded task force officers did take part.

Headlines can help drive such funding, but rather than beefing up law enforcement, D’Adamo told The Appeal, funding should go to services—like housing, healthcare, education, and job training—that can help trafficking victims or prevent trafficking. “Police address crimes,” she said. “Services and resources serve people.”

Last month, about a week before Operation MI Safe Kid, the Michigan State Police was dealing with a different trafficking situation: a social media panic. Lt. Michael Shaw used an official Michigan State Police Twitter account to debunk a Facebook post, which had claimed that “a Human Sex Trafficking ring … Operating VERY AGGRESSIVELY in our area” had attempted to abduct multiple children. This wasn’t the first time such a rumor went viral in Michigan: In an earlier Facebook video, viewed 25 million times, a man claimed “suspicious” people attempted to traffic his wife and children from a local Target store at night.

“Human trafficking is serious, but spreading rumors just doesn’t help at all,” Lt. Shaw posted to Twitter of the alleged ring. He told the Detroit Free Press: “If we had that big of a problem, we wouldn’t be tweeting about it. We would be doing something.”