ST. GEORGE — On Thursday morning, Operation Underground Railroad held a “Rise Up For Children” march against child trafficking in St. George, which commemorated World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.
OUR was founded in 2013 and has been making efforts to bring an end to child slavery and trafficking ever since. The nonprofit organization gathers experts to aid in extraction operations, including former CIA agents, past and current law enforcement, and highly skilled operatives, according to their website.
OUR also helps victims after they are rescued with recovery and rehabilitation.
Thursday’s event was held at Town Square Park with an estimated 3,000 people in attendance, according to one of the organizers. After a short welcome, supporters walked from the park up to St. George Boulevard and made a circle back to the park down Tabernacle Street.
Utah State Attorney General Sean Reyes and the founder of OUR, Tim Ballard, both spoke at the event. Once the walk concluded, there was a pause until the two arrived at the event via helicopter.
Once they arrived, the first speaker on stage was Reyes. He harped on the good work that OUR has done around the world, but he focused on the good that OUR has done in the state of Utah.
“Before Tim Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad, the state of Utah had a failing grade from Shared Hope International in the fight against human trafficking,” Reyes said to the crowd. “A straight F. I’m so proud to let you all know that last year, for the first time, Utah had an A grade.”
Reyes said he was impressed by the support the organization has received in the Southern Utah community.
“The support has been overwhelming from the time that OUR began, and not just for OUR, but all of the cases we do in the state,” Reyes said. “There’s a reason why Utah has literally become the tip of the spear in the fight against human trafficking globally, not just in the U.S. It’s people like those who are down here in Dixie, who really care, who get out of their comfort zone, who stand up for principles, who stand up for liberty and they’re fearless down here. I think there’s something special about what’s here in Utah and what’s here in St. George. The energy and the love is just amazing.”
The grade given by Shared Hope takes into account the criminalization of domestic sex trafficking, criminal provisions addressing demand, criminal provisions for traffickers, criminal provision for facilitators, protective provisions for child victims, and criminal justice tools for investigation and prosecution.
After the Attorney General spoke, Ballard took the stage and spoke about their efforts to end child trafficking both abroad and in the United States while also recounting some stories from their operations.
Ballard also praised St. George as being a clear base for OUR’s operations and added that they heavily recruit operators out of St. George and the St. George Police Department. He said he could have held the event anywhere, but he insisted that it be held in St. George.
At the end of his speech, Ballard said one of the major reasons why child abuse is on the rise is due to the shutdown of infrastructure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that schools and after school programs help keep kids safe.
According to Ballard, without the infrastructure, there has been a rise in child sex abuse reports during the pandemic.
“Even now, it kills me as I’m looking at the debates around the nation,” Ballard said. “Debate it, decide whatever you want about opening schools, but you’re still not even considering the kids.”
While the pandemic has closed down schools across the country, there is some debate between experts as to whether child abuse rates have risen, according to an AP article.
Ballard told St. George News the next step to keeping children safe is education.
“We’ve got to keep our kids safe by understanding the threat and how predators get to our kids,” Ballard said. “Parents are the first line of defense; parents need to educate.”
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