Operation Underground Railroad founder encourages east Idaho to disrupt human sex trafficking

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – When most people think of Tim Ballard, they instantly connect the founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad with his international efforts to rescue children from the human sex trafficking industry; he’s less known for his efforts to educate Americans about the dangers within their own communities.

The former CIA agent turned advocate for children trapped in the human sex trafficking industry said there are close to 2 million children currently being sold around the world for sex and the United States plays a big role in perpetuating the trade.

“It’s happening everywhere and people need to understand the statistics,” Tim Ballard, founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad, told KID Newsradio. “The highest consuming nation in the world for child porn and child rape videos, is the United States. So, so much of the demand is here. These people are everywhere.”

A recent development in the human sex trafficking industry is using the internet to groom, coerce and sell victims for sex. Ballard said the internet has not only made it easier on a worldwide scale, but in more rural places too.

“A couple years ago, we went to a town of 30,000 to 40,000 people, small town and we set up some operations there, “ Ballard said. “We went on Craigslist to identify people who were looking for children for sex and this was a town like any other town in Idaho or anywhere else in the United States…when we identified a post where a child was being sold, a nine, ten-year-old, child being sold, we observed that within the first 15 minutes of a post being sent…we had about 100 responses, just in this little town.”

Of the approximate 100 responses, Ballard said, 50 showed up to complete the purchase. 40 of those who came to purchase the child were arrested. Even with incidents like this, Ballard said many still struggle to believe something so horrific can be happening in a place like Idaho. The industry is more visable in third world countries like Haiti or Cambodia, but also exists in the United States on a quieter, more digital level.

“It’s on social media,” Ballard said. “It’s in the Dark Net, it’s on places like Backpage or even Craigslist and Craigslist does a lot to filter and monitor, but any place where there’s an online communication capability, kids are being sold.”

Part of the challenge comes for a generation of parents who are raising children experiences a different world than they grew up in. Parents can easily teach a child to navigate a school bully or staying safe on a date. What’s harder, Ballard said, is teaching a child to navigate social media when parents themselves are also experiencing it for the first time. But, parents can look to similar principles to guide how they’re teaching or protecting their children.

“We would never let our 13-year-old daughters go bar-hopping or clubbing on a Friday night,” Ballard said. “But, how many parents are willing to let the daughter close the door and have open access to the Internet and I can tell you right now that that is probably more dangerous…than bar-hopping on a Friday night.”

Ballard said the greatest tool in disrupting the human sex trafficking industry is in communication. Tackling the awkward conversations and teaching children what to look for as they’re navigating social media and other Internet platforms, arms both parents and children with the resources to combat a potential trafficker.

“Talk with your kids,” Ballard said. “I have the most bizarre conversation with my boys and it’s easy for me because I don’t blush at anything, but you’ve got to get over the awkwardness. You’ve got to be able to talk to your kids about everything, everything! Nothing is off the table. The threats, the temptations, you’ve got to talk about it.”

Learn more about the signs of human sex trafficking and how you can protect yourself, your family and your community in KID Newsradio’s upcoming event, “Emancipation: Disrupting the Modern Slave Trade,” on March 14 at 7 p.m. at the Hillcrest Performing Arts Center as a panel of experts answer your questions. You can also listen to our podcast, “Disruptors,” on Apple Podcasts (formerly iTunes), Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.