Nearly 300 at-risk kids have been recovered in the first 18 months of a county program aimed at keeping young runaways out of danger and away from a life of crime, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says.
The Child Protection Response Unit was launched in October 2012, and Dart says there's no question the program is a good investment.
"This is going to be horrifically expensive if we don't fix it now," he said in a recent sit-down interview. "These are children who are brought in because of abuse [or] neglect, OK? So they have done nothing wrong."
Among those rescued from the cold and violent streets of Chicago are Dianah and Cierra. NBC Chicago is declining to use their last names in an effort to protect them, but both came forward with hopes that other runaways will be saved.
"It's never too late to be what you could have been," said Dianah, who ran away from an abusive home at age 11.
At times, she said she used the drug Ecstasy to stay awake because she was too frightened to sleep on the streets.
Cierra admitted that she had worked as a prostitute and sold drugs before being recovered by Cook County Sheriff's Police officers.
"I had to do a lot of things to survive," she said.
Detective Dion Trotter leads the organization that every day receives a new list of children -- wards of the state -- it's tasked with finding. The hundreds of children are prioritized by age and risk factor before a plan is made to find them.
Children between the ages of 0 to five are usually rescued within days, Dart's office said. Those aged 11 to 15 years are typically rescued within two weeks. Searches for juveniles aged 16 and up can last between one and six months.
On one day, officers had success finding a 4-year-old in need of a safe place.
"That mom had four outstanding criminal warrants, so I believe we saved that kids life," Trotter said after the boy was safely placed.
Though discouraged when they come up empty handed -- on this day, officers couldn't locate a certain 15-year-old -- they never give up. The price is too great.
"The shelters are not secure placements," Trotter explained. "It's a playground for a lot of your traffickers."
Once rescued, the young people are cared for and given support in a state center. They meet with a peer counselor, and they're reminded that there are people who care about them.
"Most of our peer specialists are survivors of prostitution, and we'll also offer them service to let them know there's someone here to help them out," said Trotter.
Dart, long an advocate of child welfare, said the unit was formed because authorities in area municipalities didn't have the staff and resources to do the job effectively.
As a State Representative, Dart chaired an Illinois House task force on protecting the rights of abused and neglected children. He also served as chief sponsor of 12 child welfare bills, ushering in new laws mandating an audit of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the appointment of an inspector general for the agency.