Utah church helps free victims of human trafficking

Published: Friday, Jan. 14 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

Brad Manuel and Pastor James Bagwell operate the nonprofit ministry called Operation 61.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — On a recent December day, in a modest West Jordan chapel, the members of the Summit Adventure Church exchange hugs, sing songs of praise and bow their heads to pray. At a pulpit made of pine, the assistant pastor rises to offer a simple reminder. His topic isn't the grace of Jesus, or sin and redemption, although in a way, it is about all those things. Instead, on this cold gray morning, he speaks of a growing plague spreading across the United States: human trafficking.

The congregation is reminded of the desperate call for the food and clothing needed on behalf of the enslaved victims in Utah.

This is the mission of the Summit Adventure Church, which has created a local nonprofit, called Operation 61, to help the victims of modern slavery. Together, they work with law enforcement to locate victims of human trafficking, and through donations and volunteer work, help those who are rescued rebuild their lives.

Because human trafficking is confined to the shadows and margins, definitive numbers of victims are hard to come by, making it difficult to get an idea of how big the problem is in Utah.

The Salt Lake Police Department estimates that 10 percent of all prostitutes in Utah are minors controlled by traffickers. Since 2006, there have been over 100 human trafficking cases in Utah, and an estimated 150 children have been rescued from traffickers.

People are trafficked for a wide variety of purposes, such as commercial sex and labor, which can include agricultural work, housekeeping or working in an office setting. In both categories, victims are forced to perform labor and/or services in conditions of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery — via force, fraud or coercion.

In August of last year, for example, the Deseret News profiled four Thai men who worked on a Milford pig farm to pay off debts they owed to an international trafficking ring. During their stay in the United States, which included two years in Utah, their employer controlled their movements, and if they failed to work long and hard, the employer could ensure that their families back home would lose everything. Housing lacked enough heat in freezing winters and air conditioning in scorching summers. They repeatedly went hungry and even trapped wild birds to subsist.

"Once you get into it, it's a lot different than looking at it from the outside," said Brad Manuel, director of Operation 61. "Listening to what these women and children have gone through is a different story."

The federal government estimates there are anywhere from 80,000 to 2 million people being trafficked internationally, although human rights organizations put the number much higher. As many as 14,000 live in the U.S. An estimated 80 percent of victims globally are women and 50 percent are children.

Human trafficking breaks down into three major categories in the United States: foreign victims 18 or older who have been bought and sold for sex or labor across borders; U.S. citizens aged 18 or older who are bought and sold within the borders of the U.S. and are passed around U.S. cities and neighborhoods; and children that have been bought and sold for labor and sex within the U.S. and across country borders.

Summit Adventure Church and Operation 61 have partnered with the two biggest agencies in Utah that fight slavery — Utah Health and Human Rights (UHHR) and Child Rescue — to raise awareness. Operation 61 also helps trafficking victims by smuggling them survival necessities, such as iodine tablets to farm workers who are forced to drink from the same source used by animals. In the winter, Operation 61 gathers canned soup, coats and scarves and gloves for victims of slave labor.

After the snow melts and spring arrives, Operation 61 will begin working toward its long-term goal of building a safe house in Utah, which will shelter women and children trafficking victims. Manuel said it's difficult to find volunteers to work in the safehouse because many people with good intentions start the training, but can't handle the real-life nightmares victims have survived.

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