A controversial nonprofit group named Operation Underground Railroad that claims to save human trafficking victims around the world is under criminal investigation by a Utah prosecutor. A Davis County attorney named Troy Rawlings confirmed to a local news outlet that the organization was under investigation after a number of complaints were made, but did not specify what the complaints were about.
However, Rawlings later apparently posted on Instagram urging individuals to question any nonprofit that claims to be doing the work of law enforcement. This post implied that the complaints against Operation Underground Railroad suggest that the organization could be conducting illegal fundraising efforts by taking credit for the work of certified law enforcement officials. “…any individual, entity or organization who solicits your money and may be claiming credit for work to protect children that is actually done by our task force and/or other law-enforcement organizations in Utah and around the world. Get the details before parting with your cash… They have had absolutely zero involvement in any of these arrests and successful prosecutions you see on display on the ‘Wall of Shame’ in the Davis County Attorney’s Office,” Rawlings apparently wrote on Instagram, as reported by Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 Now.
Operation Underground Railroad is credited as one of the biggest anti human-trafficking organizations in the United States, and saw a viral rise to fame this summer after its founder, Tim Ballard, made public comments about human trafficking after a conspiracy theory about Wayfair went viral in July. The conspiracy theory alleged that Wayfair retailers had been using the website to traffic kidnapped children by selling them as expensive pieces of furniture online. The company denied the allegations, but the conspiracy theory spread like wildfire and even helped integrate QAnon—another conspiracy theory that focuses on human-trafficking—into the mainstream.
In the wake of the Wayfair scandal, Ballard posted a video on Youtube to clarify some information about what human trafficking might look like. The video, which has over fifty thousand views on the platform, helped catapult Operation Underground Railroad into the mainstream discourse just before the nonprofit had hosted a major fundraising event online—complete with celebrity appearances and the announcement that founder Ballard was the subject of a new biographical film. Other efforts from the organization offer guidance on recognizing trafficking victims from the prevalence of certain tattoos to the way a suspected victim might behave in public. This advice often contributes to racial profiling and wrongful accusations of kidnapping.
Grit Daily has reached out to Operation Underground Railroad in the past and been denied a request for comment. According to the 501(c)(3) nonprofit’s financial records, the organization held a thirty million dollar valuation in 2019. Its founder, Tim Ballard, says that he stopped receiving a salary from the organization in 2019 as well after receiving criticism in the past for his alleged huge salary. The organization claims to have helped 3,319 victims between the years of 2018 and 2019, but many other human trafficking rescue organizations and resources have criticized Operation Underground Railroad for its vague description on what, exactly, it did to help.
Experts in the field warn that organizations touting having “rescued” victims of human trafficking without having extensive reports on the quality of aftercare could be doing more harm than good. “If an organization is contracting out for aftercare, or if it is simply connecting survivors to shelters, this is where the claims of providing aftercare should end,” says Dr. Lauren Pinkston, an expert in resources for victims of human trafficking. “It is incredibly easy to publish excellent words on a website describing your programming. Delivering excellence in programming is incredibly challenging. I find it unethical to draw donor dollars from skillful marketing when survivors and their nuanced rehabilitative challenges are painted with a broad stroke, especially when services are not able to delivered with sustainable care,” Dr. Pinkston says.
Operation Underground Railroad, which advertises that it partners with local law enforcement to conduct “raids” on trafficking operations—often in developing countries, has been criticized specifically for its touting of quality aftercare without being able to back up those claims with concrete evidence. “There are multiple organizations with this type of model, and there are some serious critiques of the search and rescue model of anti-trafficking organizations, per my PhD research,” Dr. Pinkston says. “I heard from multiple informants for my dissertation [that] organizations with this type of model were a great hindrance to the over arching anti-trafficking work,” says Dr. Pinkston.
O.U.R. Rescue, as it is often called, offers the ability for some volunteers to assist with “raids” on trafficking operations in foreign countries. Volunteers are trained to act as johns and can participate in the raids by working undercover. “One issue with the model is a lack of collaboration with anti-trafficking coalitions,” says Dr. Pinkston. “If an organization is networking well with other anti-trafficking agencies, whether that be nonprofit or government entities, the leadership of that organization will understand that performing raids to ‘rescue’ sex workers is counterproductive when performed by tourists or short-term volunteers,” Dr. Pinkston says.
“I worked alongside an anti-trafficking task force in the poorest country in Southeast Asia, so I can attest to the fact even when units are under-resourced, foreign organizations working in sovereign nations MUST cooperate with local law enforcement to make sure information is being shared and the nonprofit is not inhibiting the work of the local government. This is the reason I believe the search and rescue model utilizing short term volunteers can be incredibly harmful in making an impact on anti-trafficking work,” says Dr. Pinkston.
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