EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Twenty-four youths — 18 females and six males — reported as missing or runaways in El Paso County have been found and, in most cases, returned to their families, local and federal authorities said Tuesday.

The youths, ages 13 to 21, were located after a multi-agency investigation aimed at preventing child abuse and sexual exploitation.

“Unfortunately, all too often children are subjected to a myriad of negative influences such as abusive home environments, homelessness, substance abuse and online enticement that causes them to run away,” said Erik P. Breitzke, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso. “This operation is one example of how the El Paso law enforcement and services provider community works together to keep our streets safe.”

Erik P. Breitzke, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

Twenty of the children and young adults were found in the United States, but three were in Mexico and one in Puerto Rico. Some were brought back from other states such as Oklahoma and California.

“Many times, these children cannot help themselves; they are being exploited and often times living in less than desirable conditions,” said Orlando Alanis, regional director of the Department of Public Safety for West Texas. “Child sex trafficking and human trafficking are serious concerns for the El Paso community, the state of Texas and the nation.”

The found youths received health and psychological screenings and will get any needed follow-up care.

In most cases, the youths ran away from home and were found in the company of people who were not their relatives. In at least one case a minor suffered sexual assault, another may have been the victim of human trafficking and four other cases involve suspicion of sexual abuse. But in some cases, the child was taken by an estranged parent.

“Sometimes we find them with family members, and it becomes a civil matter, that’s why we are reporting them as located and not necessarily returned,” Alanis said. “We find them in situations they were taken by family. If they’re in a good situation, we just leave them there because then it becomes a civil matter between families.”

The investigation dubbed Operation Lost Souls, a first of its kind for El Paso, involved 15 law enforcement agencies and nonprofits. Officials say they will continue their coordination so as to locate additional runaways.