Most of us don’t even want to think about child sex slavery, much less talk about it. Actually engaging with child sex traffickers is far beyond what most of us could handle—yet someone has to do it. Somebody has to go undercover, infiltrate sex trafficking operations, and bring the monsters to justice. Someone has to rescue innocent children from suffering such a horrific and traumatic fate.
One of those someones is Tim Ballard—a doting husband, loving father of nine, and former agent with the Department of Homeland Security who has dedicated his life to saving children from slavery.
Ballard is the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to take down child sex trafficking operations and rescue children from their grasp. Originally trained in counterterrorism and weapons, Ballard entered the trafficking world when he was asked to help start the Department of Homeland Security’s child crimes unit in the mid-2000s. In that role, he had to learn to go undercover as a sex tourist—to convince traffickers that he wanted to buy children.
As a father of six kids at the time, Ballard found the work traumatic, but also necessary.
“I learned how to basically be just horrible things,” he says. “I learned how to act like a pedophile or talk like a trafficker or a purveyor of child sex tourism—whatever I needed to do. Then I started to infiltrate different organizations in horrible places in Mexico and Colombia.”
Ballard says it wasn’t just the things he saw that traumatized him, but the vastness of the entire industry. “The U.S. government didn’t realize what it was doing to me. They were basically destroying my soul, not only because I was being exposed to things—and we have regular checkups with mental health professionals—but the part that was the worst for me was I would go down and find the kids, and I couldn’t believe how vast it was. I couldn’t believe how big it was. It was at this time we started getting the numbers, and it was in well in the millions of children.”
How could that kind of work not have a serious effect on a person? Ballard says it got a little easier as he learned to stop superimposing his children’s faces onto those he was rescuing. Still, he says, he’s never out of the dark.
Ballard worked doing anti-trafficking operations for the government until he began to realize that he could help more kids on his own. In his DHS position, he was limited by U.S. jurisdiction. If he started his own operation, he would not be bound by such restrictions.
The final straw came when Ballard wanted to help rescue the son of a Haitian pastor, a 3-year-old little boy named Gardy who had been kidnapped by an employee of the church and sold to traffickers. Ballard tried every avenue he could to help Gardy, including flying his dad to the U.S., but he wasn’t able to make it a U.S. case. Ballard had made a promise to find Gardy, but as a government employee, his hands were tied.
Ballard started having anxiety over the promises he’d made to families that he couldn’t keep. He said his wife Katherine convinced him that it was time to branch out on his own. “My wife is my hero,” said Ballard. “Katherine said, ‘You made a promise and they were good promises. These are real kids. We’re just going to trust in God. We’re just going to quit.’” It was scary because the couple had six children to provide for. But Ballard says they felt assured that they were doing the right thing and went for it.
In 2013, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) began. Ballard assembled a team of people from the CIA, DHS, and state and local law enforcement, many of whom walked away from pensions and job security to work for his non-profit. Currently OUR has about 25 full-time people working around the world and about 100 contractors—folks from law enforcement and military backgrounds who form their “jump team” that responds to calls to action around the globe.
The first operation OUR undertook in Cartagena, Colombia resulted in the rescue of dozens of children and the apprehension of a group of sex traffickers that included a former popular Colombian beauty queen. (Ballard points out that the vast majority of traffickers are men, but there’s always at least one woman who usually serves as a groomer for the children.)
The second operation was in Haiti, at a fake orphanage where investigations into Gardy’s kidnapping had led. They went undercover and rescued the children there, who were starving but not yet sold. But Gardy wasn’t there.
Ballard had to tell Gardy’s father that he wasn’t able to rescue his son. Both men cried together, then Gardy’s dad said something that blew Ballard away: “If my son hadn’t been kidnapped, none of these kids would be out. Nothing would have happened. If I have to give up my son so that these kids could be rescued, that’s a burden I’m willing to bear.”
But that wasn’t all. “Then he does the most amazing thing,” says Ballard. “He goes to the police the next day and he tells them that he will bring home any of the kids that they can’t find parents for and parent them. And he brings home 8 of those kids, and he and his wife are now raising them.”
Inspired, Ballard and his wife also adopted two of the kids—a brother and sister—whose parents couldn’t be found. After four years of red tape, they just came home to their new family this year. The search for Gardy still continues.
Ballard has had many times when this work has felt like too much and he’s wanted to quit. But his faith and his wife have kept him going. “Without Katherine, there’s no way,” he says. “She would stop me from throwing in the towel in those moments, and she would remind me, ‘As hard as this is, imagine how hard it is for the kids.’”
Seeing kids on the road to recovery after being rescued also keeps him going. But there are so many kids being abused in this industry, it needs to be tackled from every angle.
Child sex trafficking wouldn’t exist without a market. Ballard says that Americans are the ultimate clients because they tend to have money so traffickers can charge more. A child sex slave generally brings 3-4 times what a trafficked adult would bring in—but what kind of sicko buys kids for sex?
“I’ve asked myself this question for a little over a decade,” Ballard says. “Why do you want this? Because people think child pornography is 16-and 17-year-olds. And technically it would be. But I’ve never met a law enforcement agency who has time to even worry about that. As horrible as that is—and we wish we could—we’re talking about pre-pubescent children. That’s something people can’t wrap their head around. I can’t wrap my head around it. I cannot. It’s the opposite of what most people think of as sexy. It’s so grotesque. And yet so many people want it.”
Ballard now has nine kids of his own, and he’s moved away from fieldwork to focusing solely on sharing OUR’s mission. A feature film called “Sound of Freedom,” starring Jim Caviezel as Ballard and Mira Sorvino as his wife, is in post-production stages. Ballard has also written a book, Slave Stealers, that shares stories of slavery from the pre-Civil War era and now.
Operation Underground Railroad has helped arrest more than 848 traffickers and rescued more than 1,682 children from slavery. As a writer, I rarely encourage people to give money to specific causes, but as a non-profit, OUR relies on donations to do this vital work. First, check out ourrescue.org, read stories and watch videos of their rescues, and learn about everything the organization does. I promise, as hard as it is, you should see the incredible work these people are doing. Then, if you feel inspired, go to the donation page on their website and give what you can.
Child sex trafficking is the worst of the worst of what humans do to one another, and those who are courageously taking it on can’t do it alone. It’s up to all of us to spread the word, support their efforts, and shed a much-needed light on this darkness.