More than 120 victims of child sexual exploitation were identified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents during an international operation aimed at rescuing victims and targeting those who own, trade and produce images of child pornography, ICE Director John Morton said Thursday.
Forty-four children were directly rescued from their abusers and 79 others were identified as either being exploited by others outside of their home or are now adults who were victimized as children.
“Operation Sunflower,” launched in November to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the identification of a sunflower-shaped highway road sign that led to the rescue of an 11-year-old girl in Kansas, continued through the first week of December, but victim identification and rescue efforts continue, Mr. Morton said.
“The sexual abuse of young children, often at the hands of people they trust, is a particular wrong,” said Mr. Morton. “Whenever our investigations reveal the production and distribution of new child pornography online, we will do everything we can to rescue the victim and prosecute the abuser even if takes us years or around the world to do it.
“A relentless fight against child exploitation is the only answer,” he said.
ICE agents, working with state and local law enforcement authorities, arrested 245 people during the operation. Of the 123 victims, 110 were identified in 19 U.S. states, five of them younger than 3. Nine of the victims were 4 to 6, 21 were 7 to 9, 11 were 10 to 12, 38 were 13 to 15, and 15 were 16 to 17.
Mr. Morton said 70 of the victims were female and 53 were male.
Operation Sunflower was conducted as part of Operation Predator, a nationwide ICE initiative to protect children from sexual predators, including those who travel overseas for sex with minors, Internet child pornographers, criminal alien sex offenders and child sex traffickers, he said.
“Given that most children are abused by someone they know, we purposely sought to raise the identification and rescue of these child victims on par with the investigation and arrest of the adult abusers and pornographers,” he said. As satisfying as the arrests are, he said, “this operation is ultimately a tale of the perverse, pervasive and violent exploitation of children — very young children — to satisfy the dark pleasures of a group of twisted adults.
“The results were significant but grim — a sad reminder to us all that online child exploitation is a very real part of our lives and demands — demands — our full attention as nation,” he said.
Mr. Morton also noted that child exploitation is “hardly confined to the U.S.” He said Interpol sent images to ICE recovered by Danish police depicting two young girls being sexually abused by a man. He said agents traced the images to a Georgia residence and ended up arresting Stephen Keating, 52, of Jessup, Ga., in November. The agents rescued both girls, ages 2 and 6, as well as a 12-year-old boy who also had been abused.
ICE’s Cyber Crimes Center identified an Internet service connected to the Keating residence and referred the case to ICE agents in Savannah, Ga.