By Carol Cratty, CNN
Washington (CNN) — During a three-day law enforcement sweep targeting the problem of teenage prostitution, officers rescued 79 children and arrested 104 alleged pimps, the FBI announced Monday.
Operation Cross Country 6 took place from Friday though Sunday with more than 2,500 state, local and federal officers working in 57 cities.
FBI Acting Executive Assistant Director Kevin Perkins said the children law enforcement freed from their handlers ranged from 13 to 17 years old with one girl saying she had gotten involved in prostitution when she was 11.
"Many times the children that are taken in in these types of criminal activities are children that are disaffected, they are from broken homes, they may be on the street themselves — they are really looking for a meal, they are looking for shelter, they are looking for someone to take care of them, and that's really the first approach that's made," said Perkins.
"Once the child has been taken out of harm's way, then really the story just begins at that point," said Perkins. "That's where the real work starts, where we have to call upon the community, various social welfare agencies, our own office of victim assistance has to work with each child on an individual basis to see what their requirements are.
"This is a very difficult task. These children are very damaged — very harmed, and they need a great deal of help — it's really taxing the social welfare agencies and it's something that, going forward, we need to pay particular attention to."
Even though the FBI says 79 children were rescued, officials said there's no guarantee those minors won't be lured back into prostitution.
"A lot of these kids feel like they are in love, and therefore many of them will go back, so it's not only important that they get help, but they need a specialized kind of help," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
According to Perkins, the people exploiting children in this manner are engaged in organized crime and have business plans and strategies. He said such criminals know their market and will move kids from state to state to service clients. The criminals use various methods including the Internet to find vulnerable kids. They also may find them at bus stations or truck stops and offer them help as a first step to winning their confidence.
Operation Cross Country is part of the FBI's Innocence Lost National Initiative which was started in 2003. With 47 task forces and working groups, the FBI says more than 2,200 children have been pulled off the streets along with more than 1,000 convictions of people exploiting kids. According to the FBI, many of the convictions have resulted in long prison sentences, including eight life terms.
Despite those figures, the FBI and child advocates said child prostitution continues to be a serious problem and they called on the public to realize it can happen in any town and neighborhood.
Allen said the best estimate is that at least 100,000 American kids get lured into prostitution every year.