The movie is called The Abolitionists, and Robin Jones was invited to watch it at the home of a friend. It was shocking, eye-opening, compelling. A 2016 production of Fletchet Entertainment, the film highlights the efforts of Operation Underground Railroad - abbreviated OUR - to rescue children from sex-trafficking, and it opened Robin’s eyes to a problem she immediately knew she had to help solve.
“Being a mother, it just tugged at my heartstrings," she said. "If I had a child that was put into that situation, you would go to the depths of hell and across the universe to rescue that child, and so I just felt like there’s something I can do, and that passion is coming through and I definitely wanted to sign up as a volunteer.”
Since its establishment in December 2013, OUR has rescued 549 child victims of trafficking and has assisted in the arrests of more than 243 traffickers. The organization’s volunteers, people like Robin, raise funds, host awareness events and develop community teams to support rescue operations around the world. Robin, who lives in Cache County, hopes to help her neighbors and friends develop a better understanding of what human trafficking is and how many children it impacts. These are difficult conversations, she admits, but they are critical to creating change.
“The official definition of sex trafficking, specifically being a sex slave, is being forced into sexual activities without knowledgeable consent," Robin said. "And, currently, we have about two million children worldwide right now, that are sex slaves. Being a mother of seven - four of them adopted and four of them of African or African-American descent - I had to have that conversation with them, and it was so hard, about the history of slavery for them. And now, I have to have a new conversation with my children, and it’s a different form of slavery, and I think any parent needs to have this conversation because it’s happening.
"I always thought, ‘Oh, this is happening in third-world countries. This is happening in less-developed countries,’ but no. This is happening in the United States. It’s happening here in Utah. I was just told about how there were parents that were selling their children on Craigslist, and they were paying men to come in and rape their children. And this was just a couple months ago.”
OUR’s jump teams are not deployed domestically, but the organization does provide law enforcement with tools and resources to help combat sex trafficking in the United States. The organization also helps parents and educators recognize warning signs among children and teens that may indicate victimization.
“Some of this is changes in their appearance or changing of their peer groups and friends, where they have more fear, anxiousness, depression, submissive, tense, nervous or paranoid. They have signs of physical or sexual abuse, or they are restricted access to their family, and friends and peers. Tattoos, sometimes, are also a sign of that, where they don’t have any control of money or no access to their own money, where they have sexually explicit pictures online, that’s a huge one, and where they may have a boyfriend or girlfriend that shows signs of grooming. And then the places that we look for - airports are a big place - online, obviously, within dating relationships, I mean people can be courted into this. I have a good friend, where her daughter met a man and was courted and brought right into this. Obviously, hotels and motels, massage parlors and dating services, strip clubs, false modeling agencies. There’s many scouters that will come and appease to these girls and tell them how beautiful they are and that they can make money, just by taking pictures. These are things to look for, and things we need to be talking about with our youth.”
Another important conversation involves the pathology behind the perpetration of crimes like human trafficking. What leads a person to subject a child to sex slavery? How can participants at any level within this industry rationalize and even try to normalize their behavior? Cristine Price is a certified mental health counselor who has extensive experience treating clients who have addictions or personality disorders.
“I think an interesting aspect of this is that most are going to look at this issue with child trafficking and be absolutely horrified by it," Cristine said. "But there are some personalities that don’t have empathy for that. And that’s something that I’ve begun working with more, is actually there is a continuum as well with personality disorders. And, so, what I’ve found is true personality disorders fit certain criteria and it’s pretty extreme, but I’m using a term called ‘ego disorders’ to talk about the other end of that spectrum, and, with an ego disorder, there could be just some features of perhaps narcissism or the antisocial personality, which is sociopathic when you look at in an extreme, and that’s the nature of some of the people that will be involved in the grooming and the organizations that are perpetuating trafficking.
"What may happen is that you’ll take an individual who is somewhat hardened, I guess, emotionally, who doesn’t have a lot of feeling, lacks empathy, and is not able to see the true essence of another human being, what they think about, what they feel, and have no interest in it. And so some people would just call that selfish, but what’s happening is that they’re the ones that are definitely objectifying other people. They’re not seeing the inside of another person. They’re not looking at what they’re feeling, like I said, or what they’re experiencing. They’re looking at, ‘It’s a body. It’s a piece of property. It’s a possession.’”
Whatever the explanation for their behavior, Operation Underground Railroad has an unflinching message for those who perpetuate human trafficking at any level. Posted boldly on the organization’s website are the words, “...Be afraid. We are coming for you.”
Rescuing child sex slaves and bringing perpetrators to justice is OUR’s dual mission, and the rescue doesn’t stop with the completion of a sting operation. Operation Underground Railroad is deeply concerned with the long-term recovery of rescued children, especially considering that many children who are victimized ironically grow up to become traffickers themselves - largely because they’ve known no other way.
“The other thing that I love about Operation Underground Railroad is they’re looking to also break that cycle," Cristine said. "The aftercare program is actually the aspect that I’m really passionate about with this organization. I love that they’re rescuing these kids and that they’re working with these government agencies around the world to capture these perpetrators, but then it was that question of, ‘Well now what? Where are these kids going?’ You can imagine what they’ve gone through. Now what?
Depending on the country, they go to these different aftercare centers and rehabilitation, and you have counseling for life for some of them afterwards. And so a big part of this organization is educating them to help break that cycle, to allow them to see there is another way, that it’s not just counseling them, but it’s educating them in a skill so they can leave and have other tools when they walk out that door.”
Adequately addressing an issue like human trafficking involves much more than a single discussion. As OUR continues to conduct international rescue missions and raise awareness here in the United States, the organization is actively seeking volunteers like Robin and therapists like Cristine who can join and expand the fight. Ultimately, where will we find a lasting solution to this horrific problem? Cristine has an idea:
“You asked the question, ‘How do we get to the solution? Where do we start with this big dark cloud?’ and my experience is you start with yourself," she said. "And so I work with people on that and I can say that I’ve seen amazing miracles, and that’s really what it takes with this kind of a dark cloud over our society. A lot of it means pushing out of the way and uncovering all the layers that are not truly who we are. As a perpetrator, those are those traits, but also as a victim.”
***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.