A new U.S. Marshals Service-coordinated task force has been formed to help find missing children in Southwest Virginia.
On Thursday, U.S. Marshal Thomas Foster announced the organization of the Southwest Virginia Missing Child Unit during a news conference at the federal courthouse in Abingdon. The combined federal, state and local entity addresses critical missing child and child abduction cases in the region, Foster said.
The task force will serve as a proactive resource, using education and training, as well as responsive resources, with manpower, equipment and advisory guidance.
Foster and acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Bubar met with a number of sheriffs, police chiefs and bureau leaders to formally announce the organization.
The U.S. Marshals have assisted with missing child cases for several years. Since 2015, Foster said 60 missing and endangered children have been recovered in Southwest Virginia, including 25 since last October.
Wise County Sheriff Grant Kilgore attended the news conference, noting that his office has had a “great relationship” with the Marshals Service for many years in fugitive apprehension.
“The importance of this task force is about saving missing, endangered and exploited children in the quickest, most efficient manner possible, being able to reach out for multiple resources and resource agencies to locate and quickly return children to a safe environment,” Kilgore told the Bristol Herald Courier. “Children are our most valued asset; they are our future.”
Kilgore said Wise County has had some cases in the past that would have benefited from the task force’s efforts; most were parental abductions or runaways.
Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said that, with children having more access and exposure to the internet, predators are thriving and taking advantage of children.
“They may ask for nude photos or even having children meet them to run away because of promises and deceit,” Andis said.
He added that his office recently used the task force to find a missing 12-year-old girl who was transported to Richmond and safely returned home.
The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee, which borders Virginia, is also on the task force.
“I feel it is imperative to locate these missing juveniles and prevent or stop the solicitation, sexual abuse and trafficking of our most vulnerable,” Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy said.
Cassidy said with the assistance of local, state and federal authorities, law enforcement can protect the victims and return them home to their parents.
“But also bringing those to justice with no regard for the safety and well-being of their children,” Cassidy said.