Several years ago, I was living with my family in Tucson, Arizona. We acted as live-in caretakers for my elderly father-in-law who was, at the time, recovering from serious surgery and was largely incapacitated.
The area where we were living was not the kind of place you’d want to live with your family. It was in a high crime part of town, complete with abandoned structures, obvious substance abuse activity, and regular police searches. My mother-in-law had been murdered just two years previously by some day laborers she had hired to do a simple trash cleanup job. Suffice it to say, we did our best to be vigilant.
One day, my wife and I were both busy doing various things inside the house. Our children were watching a movie, and in a scenario that is familiar to any parent in the situation, we periodically entered the room to check on them as we went about our tasks.
On one such occasion, I realized that my then two-year-old son, Ivan, was missing.
I began to look around the house, thinking that I would find him playing in another room. I checked room after room, calling his name gently at first, then more insistently. I looked under his bed, and in the closets. I asked my wife, “Have you seen Ivan?” She hadn’t, and she joined the search.
That was when we went outside, and discovered that the front gate, typically closed and latched, was wide open. The panic I felt at that moment intensified in the minutes that followed. Urgency drove me almost to the point of panic. After a complete search of the yard, I walked the block, my mind racing so hard I could barely pray. I stopped every neighbor I saw, every person on the street and asked them if they had seen him. I called my parents and begged them to pray. We called the police.
At one point in my search, I remember distinctly thinking: We are so close to the Mexican border. People kidnap children all the time and sell them into the sex trade. What if my son, my precious little son, is in the clutches of such a monster right now? What if someone is restraining him right now in the back of a windowless van on its way to Mexico, terrified by what is happening, wondering why his father hasn’t come to protect him as he always swore that he would, as he was taken away to a life of terrible, unimaginable suffering and abuse?
I could do nothing. I was powerless to know where he was even if I could find the resources to go after him.
I found myself thinking that it would be better if he were dead than to suffer that fate.
Devastated, in tears, and bargaining with God in the way only a parent terrified for their child does, I returned to the house for another search. I knew it would be futile, because I had already gone over every inch, and he was not the sort of child who could keep quiet for even a game of hide and seek. But I had to do something.
And then, as I searched his room one final time, I peered hard into the darkness beneath his bed at a glint of light from the corner. As my eyes adjusted, I saw him, lying there, tucked tightly against the wall in almost total darkness. He was smiling at me. He did not make a sound.
This was simultaneously the best and the worst moment of my life. I have never been so afraid of anything as I was that day. He had hidden because he was embarrassed about having an accident (he was potty training at the time) and thought I would be upset with him. But he was back, he was safe, and he was in my arms. The entire ordeal had only lasted somewhere near an hour, but the relief I felt was indescribable.
For two million children around the world, there is no such happy ending. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, resulting in tens of billions of dollars in revenues each year. Just in the US foster care system, there are currently nearly 5,000 children whose locations are unknown. Many of these will wind up as sex slaves.
This week, I became aware of an organization that is not just fighting child sex slavery on the level of political activism or rehabilitation. They are actually locating child victims of sex slavery by partnering with cutting edge technology companies, and they rescue these children using trained military personnel. The organization is called Operation Underground Railroad. They describe what they do as follows:
These poor children are abused daily, thousands of them being imported every year into developed countries like the United States and Canada. These children range from toddlers to teenagers. People have been talking about this problem for some time. But these children don’t need more talk. They need action. They need to be extracted from the hell they are living in. We know how to extract them. This is what we do. We rescue them and place them into safe havens where they can be rehabilitated. Then we go after the bad guys and break their organizations. Help us do this. Help us help the children.
We have gathered the world’s experts in extraction operations and in anti-child trafficking efforts. They are former CIA, FBI, Navy SEALs, and Green Berets. They make up what we call the Underground Jump Team. While the United States government is leading the world in such operations, it is largely hindered by bureaucracy and jurisdictional limitations. If there is no U.S. statute being violated, then no U.S. action can be taken. Because most of these suffering children fall outside of U.S. jurisdiction and often find themselves kidnapped and abused in regions where the resources to save them are scarce, it is time for private citizens and organizations to rise up and help. It is our duty as a free and blessed people. If not us, who?
Operation Underground Railroad is in need of support. I only know what I have heard about this organization, but I do plan to donate to their cause. The resources they need to perform these rescues are significant. Aside from financial support, I am certain they need our prayers, and they need us to spread the word.
This week on his radio program, Glenn Beck talked about Operation Underground Railroad. He has a personal connection to the unnamed founder of the group, who is an undercover federal agent specializing in these types of extractions. When Glenn appealed to his audience to support the organization, they did. In 24 hours, they raised over $300,000. What is more impressive is how quickly those funds were put into action:
“Glenn, your listeners have done it. We made over $300,000 yesterday because you talked on the air and your listeners reacted,” Beck’s friend wrote to him in an email. “Because of the money that your listeners sent, we have already deployed two jump teams to rescue victims. That’s how fast things can happen. I was ecstatic last night when I was able to call the father of a trafficked child who is a U.S. citizen, kidnapped and taken to Haiti. He is only 7 years old.”
Beck said Operation Underground Railroad has known where this child is, but did not have the resources to rescue him until now. The child was kidnapped during a Sunday school church service.
The boy’s father, identified only as “Gus,” also sent Beck a letter thanking him. Fighting back tears, Beck read the letter on his radio program:
Glenn and audience – thank you. Before you go to sleep at night, do you have to check on each of your sweet children? Do you have to know that they are safe and sound before you close your eyes? I do. It is why I have not slept since my son was taken. I walk the streets each night, I walk aimlessly through different neighborhoods each night trying to hear his cries. I come home and sit on my porch until I nod off for a few minutes. Then when the sun comes up, I go to work in my orphanage. I can’t sleep in my bed so long as my boy is not in his. I can’t explain the pain. Months ago I saw some light when I was introduced to Operation Underground Railroad. They came to my home, they met with me, and they began to investigate…And now…They’re coming back, because you and your listeners sent them. Thank you. God bless you and your audience. May God bless you forever. We will find him. I know he is still alive.
As someone who shared a glimpse into this father’s pain only for a brief instant, I cannot begin to describe how important I believe the mission of Operation Underground Railroad to be. The powerlessness I felt when confronted with the idea of being unable to save or assist my son in any way as he was taken off to some horrifying fate by these monsters is something I will never forget as long as I live.
For me, at least, those fears were never realized. But I could have been Gus. Thank God my family, and especially my son, was spared this agony.
I’m not writing this today to present any particular call of action. I can’t vouch for an organization I’ve only just discovered, so I leave it to all of you to decide if this is something you would like to participate in. But the message, and the work, resonates with me so deeply, I felt it too important not to share.
Human trafficking is a festering aspect of the culture of death that has not risen to the level of consciousness for most Catholics despite its rampant growth. We need to change that. We need to fight back.