Tim Ballard isn’t a child sex tourist, but he knows exactly how to act like one.

It’s a strange, disturbing expertise to possess, but during his years as a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, that's what Tim Ballard was trained for. He learned how to infiltrate child trafficking organizations, arrest and prosecute the enslavers, and rescue innocent children from their twisted, wicked grasp. But first he had to create a convincing cover posing as a pedophile.

It’s a job we can all agree is vital and heroic. But it’s also one very few of us would sign up for.


In fact, Ballard himself refused it initially. He was working for DHS at the border in the mid-2000s when a superior asked if he’d help launch a Child Crimes Unit. Ballard had six children and didn’t think he could stomach seeing kids being used and abused in heinous ways. His wife Katherine agreed, worrying about what darkness might creep into their lives.

But the next morning Katherine came to Ballard in tears. “We’re making the wrong decision," she said. "The reason we think we shouldn’t do this is actually the reason we should.”

So Ballard, a man of faith, a doting husband, and a dedicated father of six, agreed to descend into the horrific—and mind-blowingly huge—child sex industry to rescue as many children from it as he could.

Whatever you imagine Ballard has seen, the reality is probably far, far worse.

Diving into the darkest side of humanity isn’t easy. “We started working these cases,” Ballard says, “and they were 1000 times worse than my mind could have conjured up . . . people call it child pornography, but I can’t call it that. It’s child rape videos, and it’s just devastating.”

He wasn’t the only agent who struggled to wrap his mind and heart around this kind of work.

In the beginning, Ballard says, there was little in the way of training materials for infiltrating child sex trafficking operations. In his book, “Slave Stealers: True Account of Slave Rescues Then and Now,” he recounted a story of one of his first undercover simulation exercises:

“I was sitting across the table from one of my undercover instructors, who was playing the role of a criminal smuggler, and I began to engage him in a conversation about how I might purchase children for sex on the black market. My stomach hurt as I brought up the subject, but I fought through it. About two minutes into the exercise, my instructor went silent and turned pale. He stood up from the table and said, ‘I can’t do this. I have a baby daughter.’ Then he walked out of the room . . .”

It’s a totally understandable reaction for a parent. In fact, it was the question foremost in my mind when I interviewed Ballard: Emotionally and psychologically, how do you handle this work?

Ballard is a hero, but he's not superhuman. His humanity drives his work—but also makes it that much more devastating.

The first thing you notice about Tim Ballard is his likability. He's the kind of guy you'd love to have living next door—positive and personable, principled but not pretentious.

He's also brutally honest about the toll this kind of work takes.

When I asked him how he learned to handle seeing the worst of humanity all the time, Ballard said it was really hard, especially in the beginning. Despite regular, government-mandated mental health evaluations, he almost quit several times. He says it got somewhat easier once he learned to stop superimposing his kids’ faces on the faces of the children he was attempting to rescue.

You have to learn to compartmentalize in some ways to do this work, which is a bit ironic, since compartmentalization is also what child traffickers do.

Ballard told a story of an undercover operation in which a trafficker was showing him photos of kids—9 to 11 years old—for sale on his phone. After they finished negotiations, the man said, "I want to show you another picture!" He pulled up a photo of a little girl, about the same age as the others, in a pretty white dress with a bicycle. Ballard asked who she was, and the trafficker told him it was his daughter. "I just bought her this bike for her birthday," he said, "I just love being a dad!"

This proud, doting father sold children to predators for a living, yet had no problem putting his own child into a completely different category.

Ballard says for most child traffickers, it's just business, no different than selling computers or cars.

It's hard to imagine how someone can divorce themselves so fully from their humanity for money. But people who buy and sell children see it as a business like any other. "It's nothing. It's a commodity," Ballard says. "They're so overcome by greed." Most traffickers are men, but there is always a woman involved in a trafficking operation, he says. She is often the one who lures children in and grooms them.  

"The scary thing is that they look as normal as anyone," Ballad says. "They’re mostly business people, they’re just out to make money. A child can be sold for 3-4 times the amount that a female adult prostitute would be sold for because of the novelty and demand."

And the demand, Ballard says, is huge. Child trafficking is a $32 billion industry and the fastest-growing criminal enterprise. Today there are 6 million children being sold, mostly for labor or sex.

And the highest demand is right here in the United States. The U.S. is the largest producer and consumer of child pornography, says Ballard. And due to that demand—and the fact that we tend to have money—Americans are child sex traffickers' ultimate clients.

There are basically two kinds of people who buy children for sex, says Ballard.

"The more tragic, but they still need to go to jail," he says, "is people who’ve been abused and who were abused as little boys, and something happens to their minds. Something gets wired into their head about what sex is. So then when they then become a mature adult, they want that sex relationship that they were the victim of at one point."

"And then there’s another group," he says, "which I think is the majority, where they tell me the story—and I’ve heard it so many times . . .'You know, I was 12 years old and I picked up a Playboy, and then all of a sudden one day the adults having sex wasn’t enough, that wasn’t doing it for me. So then I started going into the things that were strange—animals or stuff that was younger. And then I went from 17, then 16, then I tried 14, then 12 . . .'"

Ballard has interrogated many child predators and researched what makes them tick, and has concluded that a certain percentage of porn users will spiral into child pornography.

"Science backs this up about the brain of porn users—not that the majority of porn users would go to that length, but there’s enough. Even a small percentage, since porn use I think in like the 90% range for men—even a small percentage of those if they got affected this way, that’s what happens. The brain releases this cocktail of addictive chemicals, and that gets overstimulated. They need something different to get that high, and so they find themselves looking at 12-year-olds, and then flying to Costa Rica to rape a 10-year-old. And that’s where we find them."

Ballard quit his job with the government in 2013 when he realized he could save more kids with his own operation.

Working for the government, there are specific rules and laws about what you can and can't do, what is and isn't within your jurisdiction. After some missions left Ballard helpless to save kids he had promised families he would rescue, he decided he would found an organization that wouldn't be hampered by the government's limitations, so he could ultimately save more kids in more places.

That's how Ballard's non-profit, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), was born. Named for the secret network for rescuing slaves during the pre-Civil War era, OUR has created a network of former CIA, DHS, law enforcement officers, and more who cooperate with governments and international groups to rescue kids from child slavery. They train local law enforcement in finding and infiltrating child trafficking operations, provide forensic resources and support, and help get kids into vital after-care programs that help them heal from the trauma of their experiences.

One of OUR's rescue stories is being made into a movie starring Jim Caviezel and Mira Sorvino.

There is so much that I've barely even touched on here, including the harrowing, heart-wrenching stories from rescues Ballard has been a part of. One of those stories is being made into a feature-length film staring Jim Caviezel as Ballard and Mira Sorvino as his wife, Katherine. "Sound of Freedom" is currently in post-production. You can watch an interview with Ballard and Caviezel about the film and Ballard's work here:

We all have a role to play in helping battle child trafficking.

I asked Ballard what the average American can do to help with this issue. He gave the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who didn't have any specific skills or ability to rescue slaves, but whose book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," became a catalyst for the abolitionist cause. She used the skills she had to make a difference.

"What’s your skill set?" Ballard asks. "Find an application. Maybe you like to write, maybe you’re a blogger or an activist, you’re involved with politics, maybe you like to put on events and you can do fundraisers for different groups — there’s a skills set you can use and unless and until we all stand up and do it, this isn’t going anywhere."

"This is still the fastest-growing enterprise on the planet. It’s only growing, and the governments of the world are not going to put it down on their own. Everyone has to ask themselves the question, 'What do I do?' And whatever it is, do it, and apply it to this problem."

For more, see the Operation Underground Railroad website. OUR is an Accredited Charity with the Better Business Bureau's Give.org.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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