First Responders

Operation Underground Railroad: The Men and Women Who Rescue Children from Sex Trafficking

October 2, 2020Joshua Skovlund

Suspects that were taken into custody during one of OUR’s foreign operations. Photo courtesy of Operation Underground Railroad/Instagram.

Jessica Mass sees a lot of evil in her line of work.

As someone who has dedicated her career to serving children in crisis due to mental illness, neglect, sexual abuse, trafficking, and emotional and physical trauma, Mass is perfectly positioned to use her expertise as the director of aftercare for Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), a nonprofit organization focused on ending child slavery and sex trafficking.

“I will never forget where I was and what I felt reading the case file,” Mass told Coffee or Die Magazine recently, describing one of her most disturbing cases. “I was in Barnes & Noble and just started crying because of the pain and suffering these children go through.”

Mass, who has been with the organization for five years, was preparing to facilitate care for African children rescued from criminals who would routinely abduct and ritually mutilate children to sell their body parts and blood to religious fanatics. Some of these children had survived having their necks cut with a machete to drain their blood into a jar and having their genitals removed.

“That is just pure evil — Sodom and Gomorrah evil,” Mass said. “I don’t even know how somebody could dream of that kind of evil.”

The moment foreign law enforcement raided a party set up to facilitate child trafficking. Operation Underground Railroad sets up undercover agents as buyers, solidifying a sting against child traffickers. Screenshot from YouTube.

Founded in 2013 by Timothy Ballard, OUR gathers experts in extraction operations and anti-child-trafficking efforts to bring an end to child slavery. Ballard, the organization’s CEO, served for more than a decade as a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security, where he was assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and deployed as an undercover operative for the US Child Sex Tourism Jump Team.

The organization says its team consists of former CIA officers, past and current law enforcement, and highly skilled operatives that lead coordinated operations in conjunction with law enforcement entities in 27 countries, including the US.

OUR chief of operations Jonathan Lines said he and Ballard met at DHS when Lines was assistant special agent in charge of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Lines said OUR had its genesis in an operation he and Ballard worked on in Latin America. After arresting several Americans engaged in child sex tourism, Ballard was frustrated that DHS was unable to act on reports that foreign citizens were engaged in the same behavior. Lines and his agents could share intelligence with the foreign government, but they couldn’t make them act on it.

“It was troubling,” Lines told Coffee or Die Magazine recently. “It was hard to know that children are being violated around the world, and we could only do so much.”

Foreign law enforcement and OUR operatives processing a crime scene after a sting was executed to save child trafficking victims. Screenshot from YouTube.

In 2012, Ballard told Lines he believed he could accomplish more if he set up a nonprofit to assist both the US and foreign governments in taking down child traffickers, regardless of jurisdiction.

Lines thought giving up a government job in an unstable economy was bold and courageous, so he wasn’t ready to make the jump with Ballard. He continued with DHS as Ballard moved forward with launching OUR.

After Lines retired from DHS in 2016, he joined OUR, adding his 25 years of experience to the organization and working to build out and strengthen OUR’s team and bolster its fundraising efforts.

“We are very grateful for the generous donations and support of the general public, from the little old lady that was giving us literally $2.50 a month — which was all her discretionary income — to the corporations that are so willing to be socially responsible,” Lines said.

When Lines first joined OUR, Ballard was working exclusively with foreign governments to develop anti-child-trafficking strategies and methods, and OUR’s undercover operatives were infiltrating child-trafficking rings in those countries. Lines believed Ballard’s work was vital to stopping child trafficking all over the world, but he wanted to do even more.

A crime scene after foreign law enforcement and OUR conducted a sting. Screenshot from YouTube.

While a significant amount of human trafficking is generated by “bad actors” abroad, Lines said, “we have our own plague of […] child exploitation here in the United States.”

Beyond assisting foreign governments, Lines envisioned a future multinational network that included the US. He believed OUR should also bolster local, state, and federal agencies in the United States by providing training, new technology, and tools to fight trafficking. Ballard agreed, and in 2016, OUR expanded its mission.

According to OUR, the organization has rescued 4,100 victims and assisted in the arrests of more than 2,300 traffickers around the world. In conjunction with different law enforcement agencies, they “have collectively helped rescue more than 10,000 survivors who were enslaved, exploited or at risk.”

Lines said OUR’s operations are always legal and officially sanctioned by government officials. Its personnel advise and train organizations, and its undercover operatives pose as potential buyers of child exploitation services.

Coffee or Die spoke with one of OUR’s operatives about the mental toll the work takes. He is a law enforcement officer who specializes in undercover work, tactical operations, and child exploitation investigations. He has worked with OUR for the past three years and has 14 years of experience. For his personal safety, we identify him only as William.

William said operatives can work up to five consecutive missions before they have to undergo a mandatory psychological evaluation. They rotate in and out in order to prevent seeing the same horrible things too frequently.

“It’s really just being preventative and proactive,” William said.

After working in specialized areas of law enforcement or the military and dealing with homicide, child crimes, or sex crimes, OUR operatives have extensive experience in recognizing signs of mental distress or burnout. OUR operatives police their own to maintain physical and mental health in the austere environments they work in. OUR’s team members are a tight-knit group that keeps close contact on or off missions to look out for everyone’s health and safety.

“It’s similar to a special operations team within either law enforcement or the military where there’s that special bond,” William said. “You gain appreciation for each other and the work that you’re doing, so I would say there’s definitely a friendship that extends past specific operations.”

Foreign officials investigating a brothel post raid. Screenshot from YouTube.

On one of her first cases for OUR, Mass encountered a boy who had survived an attempted human sacrifice. Criminals had cut the child’s neck, nicking his spinal cord, which left him paralyzed in both legs and his left arm.

OUR helped the boy find medical care, eventually flying him to the US, where he underwent surgery that enabled him to walk again. The 13-year-old boy can now ride a bike, and he recently took horseback riding lessons. An American family that has been caring for him is in the middle of the adoption process, and Mass said OUR is helping him catch up to the appropriate education level for his age.

Mass and her team members serve as victim advocates. While police process a crime scene, Mass and her team immediately start building rapport with the rescued children. They facilitate aftercare for victims from the point of rescue forward.

Her team provides the children with clothing and a kit that includes puzzles, coloring books, and other items to keep them occupied during crime scene processing.

“We even have journals in there, so if they’re remembering painful experiences, they don’t have to verbalize those things. They can write them down,” Mass said.

“A few months ago, we shared the story of ‘Sabrina,’ whose court testimony led to the arrest of two more men that abused her and the rescue of two more survivors, ages 10 and 12. We are excited to report that another survivor, 13 years old, has been rescued and placed in our partnering aftercare home thanks to Sabrina’s brave testimony.” — OUR. Photo courtesy of Operation Underground Railroad/Instagram.

Mass said OUR establishes partnerships with local organizations to ensure rescued children receive mental health support, vocational training, housing, and anything else they need. OUR inspects all potential aftercare facilities and screens all partner organizations months in advance of operations to protect against future exploitation of rescued children.

These official duties are just the beginning of her team’s efforts, Mass said.

“We provide birthday parties, graduation parties,” she said. “We’ve done gondola rides down the river in Mexico.”

She said no matter what the need is, OUR will set it up to give these children better lives. It has built schools in areas that lacked educational facilities and also paid for some older children to go through college.

OUR maintains relationships with the governments and aftercare facilities it works with and is continually expanding its support network for survivors of child trafficking while ensuring rescued kids stay out of harm’s way and experience healthy growth after the horrors they experienced.

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.

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