Illustration that symbolizes human trafficking. Hand with human figures around and walking out of it. Chains in the foreground,
illustration by Michelle Urra.

Anti-Trafficking Charity Operation Underground Railroad Has Another Murky Rescue Story

The anti-trafficking group tells a tale about saving 10 women from sexual slavery and bringing them to the U.S. with the help of Trump’s White House and Tony Robbins. The full story is even stranger.
August 12, 2021, 1:00pm

"It was a spiritual connection, truly," Tim Ballard told Glenn Beck, his voice brimming over with emotion. It was a warm May day, and Ballard, a former ICE agent and the founder of the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad as well as the CEO of the Beck-founded Nazarene Fund, was inside a recording studio, using Beck's radio show to recount what he presented as yet another triumph for the anti-slavery cause. 

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Ballard was there to tell the inspiring and cinematic story of a paramilitary operation he said OUR had carried out several months prior, in which it rescued 10 women from captivity in a Caribbean brothel and spirited them to freedom—and, eventually, the United States—with the assistance of motivational speaker Tony Robbins and Donald Trump's White House. 

Ballard is a regular guest on Beck's show and a renowned figure in Utah who may have his eye on a Senate run in his adopted home state, according to multiple people VICE World News has spoken with. Appearing on Beck's show allowed him to sidestep the less camera-ready aspects of OUR's current reality: The organization has been under a widening criminal investigation led by a Utah county attorney named Troy Rawlings since last year. ("The investigation is still very active and fruitful,"  Rawlings said in June; OUR said it "has complied with all laws that regulate nonprofits and intends to cooperate fully with any official inquiry, if asked.") Just weeks before, Ballard had also received torrents of bad publicity for appearing at a conference devoted to conspiracy theories and COVID denialism, where the actor Jim Caviezel, who plays Ballard in an upcoming movie, promoted QAnon doctrines about the murder of children. His appearance on Beck's show would promote a friendlier narrative.

As Ballard told it, 10 women in an unnamed Latin American country had been recruited for jobs at a high-end resort in the Caribbean. These were professional and "praying" women, he emphasized, not sex workers, a distinction that seemed important to him. Upon arrival, they were drugged. They woke up naked, and were immediately raped and told that their new lives would be as sex slaves, held "literally in a jail cell behind the brothel." After some of the women had been in captivity for several years, they were discovered, almost accidentally, by undercover OUR operators carrying out a sting operation. That was the spiritual connection Ballard had spoken of with Beck. In the same conversation, he described one of the women slipping a note to the operators reading, "Help us, please" in Spanish.

OUR's operators, Ballard claimed, were able to get into the establishment in cooperation with local police, only for those police to start taking cash bribes from the women's traffickers. They were then able to escape with the women—"literally, at this point, being chased by cops and traffickers, running with these 10 girls from safehouse to safehouse"—and connect with another law enforcement agency, which was able to secure the women's passports. 

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Ballard at this point mentioned that OUR had brought film crews along, and that the story is being made into a documentary. Dramatic footage played on the video stream of Beck's show: the women in a line along an ocean shore, their backs to the camera; the women standing together on the streets of a cloudy, apparently American city, their faces blurred.  

With the help of the United Nations and a neighboring country, OUR was able to get the women over the border and into hiding for seven weeks, Ballard said, but was faced with a problem: The traffickers would be looking for the women, so they couldn't be taken to a commercial airport. Into the breach stepped Tony Robbins, the self-help guru who's been accused of sexual abuse by 10 women. (He denies these allegations and is currently suing Buzzfeed News, which reported on them, in civil court in Ireland). On hearing from Ballard, Robbins immediately agreed to send his personal 737. Photos of the women boarding the plane, their faces again obscured, were shown on the video stream: Robbins' jet was emblazoned with the words LIVE WITH PASSION and his gigantic signature.

Where they would go next was the issue—but Ballard was able to solve that, too.

Do you work in anti-trafficking or aftercare? Have you worked for or with Operation Underground Railroad, White Mountain Research, or the Nazarene Fund? We would love to hear from you. Contact the reporters at tim.marchman@vice.com or anna.merlan@vice.com, or Signal us at 267-713-9832.

"Luckily, we had super-tight connections with the White House at the time," he explained.  "One phone call to the White House. 'We need visas.' This never happens, they're not going to give us visas, there's no nexus direct to the United States. Instantly, no problem: 'You'll have them as soon as we can print them out,'" he said. "Got visas for them, got them to the United States." As he and Beck congratulated Trump for not exploiting the situation for political purposes, Ballard said the sole condition the administration placed on these visas was that the women come to the White House to be welcomed to the U.S.

After a break, Beck set the scene by asking listeners to imagine themselves in the women's situation. As is often the case in Ballard's public speaking engagements, the two men focused in microscopic detail on how frequently the women involved had been raped. "You're a sex slave," said Beck. "You're behind bars. You're raped how many times a day?" "Oh, multiple," said Ballard. "Five to 10 at least."

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Ballard then turned to what happened after the women were brought to the U.S., a subject on which he provided considerably less detail. The women, he said, were being supported by OUR's "unbelievable partners on the ground." A university he "wasn't supposed to" name "took them in and gave them scholarships," he said; several had in fact just graduated. Gauzy footage of women onstage in caps and gowns played on Beck's video stream; OUR, Ballard said, was supporting their aftercare and their families abroad, but the women couldn't go home due to "our stupid immigration policy."

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Footage from a graduation ceremony plays on Glenn Beck's show.

Several weeks later, Ballard would appear on Candace Owens' show Candace, where he told the same story. This time he was able to add a detail that would prove crucial: The women were originally from Venezuela.

Here's what appears to be true: OUR helped 10 Venezuelan women escape from what the organization says was trafficking, assisted them in entering the United States with the help of Tony Robbins and the Trump White House, and gave at least some of them help in entering an academic program. Specific details Ballard occluded and omitted, though, make the story far more complicated and ambiguous. 

A VICE World News investigation shows that the story OUR has told about these women's entry into the U.S. is not entirely accurate: Instead, as has become a pattern with the organization, the version that Ballard recounted to Beck and Owens is rife with exaggeration, seemingly designed to burnish OUR's reputation by distorting what it did for the trafficking survivors. The truth appears to be less heroic than it is exploitative, another example of OUR using survivors to promote its own brand. 

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After Ballard called in a favor from the White House, the women entered the country under an obscure program offering none of the legal certainty or support that comes with a visa. And as Utah journalist Lynn Packer first reported, rather than graduating university, the women took training in entrepreneurship from interns at a business school program, with OUR staging a camera-friendly ceremony designed to look like university graduation. Meanwhile, the women appear to have been housed by a religious group that had only started operations months before; the organization is run by an audiologist who declined to answer basic questions about the backgrounds and qualifications of its staff, but did say clearly that it "does not provide aftercare services." 

Gilding the lily is nothing new for Ballard and OUR; the organization is being investigated by Rawlings specifically for, among other things, making misrepresentations in fundraising materials. As VICE World News has previously reported, OUR has made misleading claims about everything from whether it had "rescued" a trafficking survivor who had, according to court documents, in fact rescued herself, to the qualifications of the "operators" who go on its missions. The question raised by its newest heroic tale is a simple one: Did OUR get in over its head, and in the process put 10 trafficking survivors in a legal limbo where they were not on a pathway to citizenship and yet unable to return safely home to their families?

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In a statement, reproduced below, an OUR spokesperson said, "OUR remains committed to supporting survivors through their journey to recovery and refutes any claim otherwise."

Based on Ballard's descriptions, the country to which the women were trafficked appears to be Haiti, and the country to which they escaped appears to be the Dominican Republic. Without more specific information, there is no way to check the details of Ballard's claims about the conditions in which the women were held, the circumstances in which they encountered OUR, or Ballard's claims about OUR and the women being chased from safehouse to safehouse by traffickers and cops. Trafficking experts VICE World News spoke to were skeptical.

The parts of Ballard's story that pick up in the United States are more possible to confirm. It is true, according to Robbins' spokesperson, that OUR used Tony Robbins' plane to transport the women to the U.S., where they were taken to his Florida mansion to enjoy his and his wife's hospitality. (OUR and Robbins have historically made much of Robbins' support, and said that he has used facial prosthetics to go on undercover missions. Ballard has described Robbins as OUR's biggest donor, which appears to be true: Both Robbins and the organization said he raised $18 million for them in one charity birthday bash. But that friendship has more recently cooled; according to a person familiar with the situation, Robbins put a pause on donations this winter after learning that the group was under criminal investigation.)

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Footage of women boarding Tony Robbins' plane, as shown on Glenn Beck's show.

It's also true that OUR used its connections to reach out to the White House about getting the women into the country. Ballard was not just an ally, but someone with an actual role in the administration: In 2019, Trump appointed him to the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking, on which he served as a co-chair. (An assistant to Dr. Sandra Morgan, a respected trafficking expert who served as the other co-chair for the council, said she was traveling for the summer and could not comment.) 

The nature of that favor from the White House, though, meant that as the women flew toward Tony Robbins' mansion, they did so under ambiguous legal status. 

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In the summer of 2020, Donald Trump's top trafficking adviser was Heather Fischer, a Liberty University graduate who had been in government for less than a year following a brief stint running the McCain Institute's human trafficking program and five years with the anti-trafficking group Love146. Prior to joining the White House, she had worked at the State Department's Trafficking in Persons office. (John Richmond, who oversaw the office, described her role there as focused on public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.) Given her relative inexperience in government, she wasn't necessarily an obvious choice to be the administration's human trafficking czar, but Ivanka Trump, whom Ballard has lauded for her anti-trafficking work at the White House, personally issued a statement lauding her upon her joining the Domestic Policy Council.

According to multiple people familiar with the situation, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly about a sensitive situation, OUR called Fischer to get the women into the country. (Fischer referred detailed questions from VICE World News to the State Department, writing: "I would refer any comments to the U.S. State Department. Going forward, if you have additional questions about my time in government, please contact the U.S. State Department. The State Department then told us, "Ms. Fischer operates now in her individual capacity.  We refer you to speak with Ms. Fischer directly." Fischer did not respond when contacted for comment again.) 

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Heather Fischer speaks during a Department of Justice event in August 2020.(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The White House official in Ballard's version of the story made it sound like allowing foreign nationals into the country was just a matter of hitting a button on a printer. The process isn't quite that simple, and Ballard's claim that he got the women visas by calling a friend in the White House is not true.

A visa essentially allows a foreign citizen to travel to a port of entry and request permission to enter the country; it can be issued only according to strict criteria, and there are few practical means to expedite its issuance. An official at a consulate can move someone to the front of an appointment list, according to a State Department spokesperson, but the person seeking a visa would still need to fill out paperwork and undergo a rigorous vetting process. None of that is what Ballard described, and the frictionless process he detailed to Beck and Owens raised eyebrows among experts VICE World News spoke to. 

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"The immigration process is very slow," said Annie Fukushima. She's an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Division in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation at the University of Utah, and has written extensively on trafficking issues. (She spoke to VICE World News generally about visa issues, and did not have any special knowledge of the OUR situation.) Summarizing the views of experts in the field, she said that "under the Trump administration, the process got even more difficult and slower. Expedited approvals don't seem very common." 

In a situation like the one Ballard described—involving people who were trafficked in another country, with no U.S. connection—the typical route would be to enter the U.S. and then seek asylum, Fukushima said. "That would go through an asylum board and be reviewed by asylum officers and move up the chain of information from there." Seeking asylum, she said, is "a risky stance," because a denied appeal can mean being instantly deported. Under the Trump administration, asylum seekers were far more likely to be denied than admitted. (For his part, Ballard has enthusiastically talked up Trump’s anti-trafficking bona fides and repeatedly advocated for building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, arguing in both op-eds and congressional testimony that an open border leads directly to more sex trafficking.)

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Even if the women had sought and received visas, as Ballard claimed, that would, according to experts and a State Department spokesperson, have involved a complex process, not simply a phone call. While there are several different kinds of visas available, Fukushima said, each presents its own challenges. One example is a T visa, reserved for victims of human trafficking. "Five thousand individuals are eligible for a T visa annually and we never hit the cap," Fukushima said. There's also a so-called U visa, for victims of criminal activity, including domestic violence or sexual assault, in a U.S. context. Fukushima said she has heard from other experts that the wait list for that visa averages about six years. Finally, there's the S visa, for people who witnessed a crime and are assisting law enforcement in investigating it. "That's another route we've seen survivors of trafficking networks take," Fukushima said. "They aren't super quick. You have to apply. The process can take a year." Crucially, all of these visas are only available to people who are already in the United States. 

Overall, Fukishima said, "imagining someone coming into the U.S. and getting one of these visas is …" She paused, tactfully. "It's just very difficult to imagine someone getting it that way. You'd have to have connections at the highest level."

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Tim Ballard and Kirstjen Nielsen flank Donald Trump at a White House meeting in February 2019. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ballard and OUR did, of course, have high-level connections. But not even Fischer, the White House trafficking czar, could magically produce visas, nor would any other administration official have been able to do so. Instead, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, allowed the Venezuelan women in under parole after the White House took the issue up, according to sources familiar with the situation. (Asked whether it's typical for parole to be issued at the behest of connected NGO figures or when asked for by political appointees, a USCIS official told VICE World News, "USCIS does not authorize parole for individuals at the request or direction of any outside entities.")

The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, can permit any foreign national into the U.S. under parole as a matter of executive discretion if there are humanitarian reasons to do so—medical treatment, for example—or it provides a significant public benefit. This offers an inherently time-limited status. "Humanitarian parole," according to the website of USCIS, a DHS agency, "is used to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to an emergency."

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Under the Trump administration, parole was granted fairly rarely. "Over the past five years," the USCIS official said, "USCIS has approved between approximately 500 and 800 requests for Humanitarian or Significant Public Benefit parole for people outside the U.S. annually." 

The distinction between being in the U.S. on parole rather than on a visa is significant, according to Grace Huang, policy director at the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, with a material impact on how long someone can stay in the U.S., whether they can leave and re-enter, and what they can pursue while there.

"It's not permanent status," said Huang. "It's not a path to citizenship."

Part of what makes parole flexible is that, unlike a visa, it doesn't come attached to specific statutory requirements. There is no set date by which parolees must leave; instead, the expiration of parole is handled on a case-by-case basis. Another distinguishing feature is that, unlike people in the U.S. on a visa, those under parole are generally ineligible for a wide range of federal public benefits that trafficking survivors on a visa can access, including health insurance, food assistance, cash payments, and housing, according to Huang. This is part of why those entering the U.S. under parole usually require a sponsor.

Sponsorship of a parolee is a significant commitment: The online version of the affidavit sponsors fill out specifically reminds them that they need to show that parolees, "will not become public charges while in the United States." It is also, in some ways, difficult to square with best practices in victim support: The federal Office for Victims of Crime specifically notes "Feeling a lack of control" as a potential trigger for the re-traumatization of trafficking victims. 

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In all, the idealized, fairy-tale vision Ballard describes—vulnerable, professional, praying women rescued from a "horrible country" and ushered speedily at his behest into a secure new life in the U.S.—appears to be a blend of fact and fiction. But among other things, the complexities reflect the realities of the U.S. immigration system, which is, Fukushima said, incredibly stringent about what constitutes a "real" victim. This is part of what has created the endless hoops through which trafficking survivors have to jump when seeking entry into or legal status within the U.S.

"The anti-trafficking movement in the United States is preoccupied with the notion of a perfect victim," Fukushima told VICE World News. "They're seen as an ideal, one that we'll allow entry into the U.S. The ones who don't fit into that perfect ideal are seen as criminal and deportable and ineligible for the resources that you should have access to. The standards for being seen as a victim are incredibly high." 

Ballard's tales on both Glenn Beck and Candace Owens' programs ended with the equivalent of a slow, cinematic fade: The women were shown in their caps and gowns, hugging triumphantly, as Ballard clapped in the background. But what actually happened between their arrival and that climactic moment is far less clear.

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Footage from a graduation ceremony plays on Glenn Beck's show.

While he has effusively described the paramilitary operation and string-pulling that eventually landed the women in the U.S., Ballard has been far more constrained in his descriptions of what happened to them once they arrived. This is understandable, because ethical treatment of trafficking survivors requires close attention to their privacy and security. But constraints or no, Ballard has revealed a great deal of information about the women and what OUR has done for them—enough to make clear that much of what he's said is misleading or false.

In his appearances with Beck and Owens, the key thing Ballard said about the women's aftercare was that a university had taken them in and given them scholarships, and that a number of them had already graduated. This is not true.

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As Utah journalist Lynn Packer has reported, the university in question is Utah State. More specifically, the women were involved with the Small Enterprise Education and Development, or SEED, program at the Huntsman Business School, which sends students abroad for a semester to teach entrepreneurship in countries like Ghana, Peru, and the Dominican Republic. ("Interns will teach business development courses, mentor and coach and help existing businesses funded by SEED partners," according to the program's website.) 

According to documents obtained by Packer via a public-records request, rather than being taken in and given scholarships to achieve two- or four-year degrees, the women in fact attended a weekly meeting from late January to mid-April and were given access to online courses on new venture creation and other topics. Communications between Jessica Mass, OUR's head of aftercare, and SEED administrators were intensely focused on meticulously stage-managing the April graduation ceremony which OUR filmed and provided to Beck and Owens; discussions of the substance and utility of the courses were far more limited.

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Detail from communications between OUR and Utah State, obtained by journalist Lynn Packer under a public records request

Utah State reacted angrily to Ballard's misrepresentations. "USU is not aware of and has not offered or provided any form of scholarship to any of the SEED program trainees," Amanda DeRito, a USU spokesperson, said in a statement to VICE World News. "USU is not aware of any of these individuals enrolling in a degree-seeking program at USU. To the extent that OUR may have otherwise represented its relationship with USU or USU's relationship with OUR's clients, it is inaccurate." 

DeRito added that USU issued a communication to OUR on August 6 "to ensure they understand our expectation that all direct, implied or referential communications, statements and publications about Utah State University, the SEED program, services provided by the SEED program, and/or the relationship and interactions between OUR and the SEED program are clear, precise, and accurate. Implied, suggestive, and misleading communications about the SEED program that harm the interests of the university and its programs are harmful to the university and will not be permitted." (This communication, which VICE World News obtained under a public-records request, can be read here.)

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Packer also established where the graduation ceremony was held: The Well, a non-denominational church in suburban Salt Lake City. VICE World News confirmed Packer's reporting by identifying a video of an April 25 service during which Jason Parrish, a Hillsong-educated pastor at The Well, talked about its non-profit subsidiary ministry, Redemption House, which serves women who were "trafficked, enslaved or kidnapped." 

Parrish described Redemption House's relationship with Utah State and the SEED program, and said that women who had been staying there and been involved with the SEED program had participated in a graduation ceremony at the church. This ceremony was held on the same day as the one OUR arranged for the Venezuelan women, and public records returned to Packer show that a SEED administrator proposed to OUR's director of aftercare that someone from Redemption House attend the ceremony.  All of this strongly suggests that Redemption House is one of OUR's "unbelievable partners on the ground," and evidently where the Venezuelan women stayed, at least for a time. 

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Jason Parrish talks about Redemption House in an April sermon at The Well.

What, exactly, Redemption House is and does isn't entirely clear. According to Utah filings, it was incorporated as a non-profit on October 30, 2019, and has had federal status as a 501(c)3 non-profit only since June 2020. Parrish said that it opened "at the beginning of COVID," meaning just months before the operation in which OUR encountered the Venezuelan women. Its website lists no staff and no email addresses or phone numbers, though it does link to a donations page. Some of what is on the site is curious: Redemption House says it only serves women between the ages of 18 and 34, and its mission is described as "a lifelong call and commitment to bring positive life change to women who have been rescued from human trafficking." (This is unusual language for an organization providing services to survivors; the Office for Victims of Crime specifically cautions service providers against using language that "infers an imbalance of status, skill, or power.") It also says that it supports women using "the R.E.S.T.O.R.E. method," a term that does not seem to appear in the survivor services literature and with which experts were unfamiliar.

After contacting several people associated with The Well, VICE World News heard back from Redemption House's executive director, a woman named Lauren Snyder. According to her LinkedIn page, Snyder is an audiologist with no apparent experience in survivor services or aftercare. Citing survivor privacy, Snyder declined to answer specific questions about the Venezuelan women and Redemption House's relationship with OUR, as well as questions about the background and qualifications of staffers and the nature of the services it provides survivors. She did clarify what it does not do.

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"Redemption House," she wrote in an email, "provides a safe place to sleep for survivors of human trafficking, but does not provide aftercare services."

There are principles governing the provision of services to survivors of trafficking, and more generally, there is a consensus among experts on the most pressing needs of survivors. "When I worked with survivors on the ground, I found that housing is actually the most pressing need, or one of the most pressing," Fukushima said. Most trafficking victims, she said, arrive in the U.S. with urgent needs not just for housing, but with help accessing jobs, dealing with food insecurity, and, in many cases, help with substance use. Other needs can include language skills, health and specifically mental health care, and assistance navigating the labyrinthine U.S. public-benefits and immigration bureaucracies.   

Who, if anyone, has been providing these services to the survivors that OUR has so eagerly credited itself with rescuing is a mystery; its website lists one domestic aftercare specialist, who began working at OUR in October 2020, according to his LinkedIn page.

The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by the NGO Polaris, maintains a directory of anti-trafficking organizations and direct service providers, which lists four organizations in northern Utah. Brendan Call of the Utah Trafficking in Persons Task Force, which is run out of the state attorney general's office, said that he hadn't heard of the Venezuelan women and that the task force—the main anti-trafficking agency in Utah—doesn't work with OUR at all. Utah Legal Services and the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition were similarly unfamiliar with the women. (The Asian Association of Utah, the main direct service provider in the state, didn't respond to multiple inquiries from VICE World News.)

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These groups were not alone. Call mentioned two Utah groups that provide services for survivors and are not in the Human Trafficking Hotline directory: Soap2Hope did not respond to an inquiry, but Renee Lagrant of Journey of Hope said she had not heard of the women and that her group does not work with OUR. (She added that OUR has what she described as a bad reputation in the aftercare community in Utah.) 

Fukushima, the trafficking expert, was unfamiliar with the case. Missy Larsen of doTERRA, a multi-level marketing company in Utah that has provided extensive support to OUR in the past and partners with various anti-trafficking causes, said, "We are currently not working with OUR." On its website, OUR lists three aftercare groups with which it works: Face Forward and the Los Angeles Dream Center did not respond to inquiries, while a representative for the Phoenix Dream Center initially scheduled an interview with a VICE World News reporter before canceling it and declining to respond to follow-ups. One group—the Malouf Foundation, a Utah anti-trafficking charity—did say it was involved in supporting the Venezuelan women. "In September of 2020," it said in a statement, "the Malouf Foundation donated bedding to an aftercare center that would house survivors of an OUR rescue mission."

As VICE World News has previously reported, a central focus of Troy Rawlings' investigation into OUR is whether it has made misleading claims in fundraising appeals. Bringing trafficking survivors into the United States, only to use them for a graduation seemingly tailor-made to be inserted into a fundraising video, could arguably fit that description. But a bigger question is this: Where are these women today? 

OUR and Redemption House were either unwilling or unable to say whether they have kept track of these survivors, or whether they ever got the aftercare the organizations implied had been provided. In response to a detailed set of questions asking, among other things, whether the women were still in the U.S., as Ballard said they were in May, and what their legal status is, OUR issued the following statement:

Violence against children and women is not limited by borders, culture, class, or immigration status.  Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) is proud to aid victims who fall prey to human trafficking and the associated crimes that follow.  The assertions that call into question the validity of OUR's mission to rescue 10 Venezuelan women from their captors are misguided, untrue and only aid the criminal activity OUR is seeking to end. 

Furthermore, OUR is proud of the aftercare services that are provided to trafficking survivors and the very personalized approach taken to support each survivor in their recovery.  While OUR is constantly looking to improve the services offered to the victims of these horrific crimes, each survivor's journey toward recovery is different and each individual has different needs. As such, no "source" could possibly provide an accurate generalization of these survivors' recovery, which is often, and understandably, long, complicated and full of highs and lows. Consequently, OUR remains committed to supporting survivors through their journey to recovery and refutes any claim otherwise.

Wherever possible, OUR celebrates these women and their accomplishments by lifting them up, including recently at the ceremony that OUR held for these survivors. Any attempt to diminish their accomplishments, for which they are extremely proud of, is truly disappointing.

[…]

OUR remains singularly focused on their vital work and mission to help protect children from sexual exploitation.

In its statement, OUR also said that VICE World News may be violating domestic and international law by asking questions about whether the women are still in the U.S., whether OUR knows where they are, their legal status, and the current status of Ballard's efforts to reunite them with their families. When pressed, an OUR spokesperson was unwilling or unable to specify which laws the organization claims VICE World News was potentially violating. 

This studious respect for privacy, of course, didn't extend to Ballard's extensive and detailed comments to Glenn Beck and Candace Owens, interviewers willing to give OUR a sympathetic ear, avoid hard questions, and, in Beck's case, do business with Ballard. In the end, the curious silence about central aspects of this story raises larger questions not just about the deep connections between OUR and powerful factions of the political right, as well as Ballard's willingness to say misleading and untrue things—and even exploit the stories of survivors—to promote his organization. It also raises more foundational questions about what OUR, which says it works in dozens of countries around the world, actually does for the women and children it claims to save. 

A day before this story published, after multiple requests for comment from VICE World News to OUR, Tim Ballard posted a photo of the women's graduation ceremony to Instagram, and revealed, for the first time, that OUR and "one of our aftercare partners," as he put it, had "hosted" the graduation ceremony.

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Ballard's Instagram post, via Instagram/OUR.

"Every survivor's story is different," he wrote. "A main purpose of O.U.R. Aftercare is to support survivors in their dreams for themselves and for their children. Whether it be a graduation ceremony to honor new accomplishments or throwing a birthday party for a young survivor who has never had one, we continue to support survivors through individual, holistic care."

OUR has asserted in the past that the vetting process for its aftercare partners is extensive. In an interview with a publication called Coffee or Die—put out by Black Rifle Coffee Company—OUR aftercare director Jessica Mass described, in detail, all the things she says the organization does for those it claims to have rescued. 

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."

Birthday parties, gondola rides, and graduation ceremonies—real or staged—are just the beginning of recovery, however. Survivors are not always photogenic, or grateful, or pure in the eyes of people like Glenn Beck. And at a certain point, the lights dim and the party is over.