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Sundance documentary features Utah-based group's child sex slave rescues

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PARK CITY — Child sex trafficking took center stage Tuesday night at the Sundance Film Festival, with a documentary film highlighting a Utah-based group’s efforts to stop traffickers.

“The Abolitionists,” produced by “Schindler’s List” Academy Award winner Gerald R. Molen, follows Operation Underground Railroad from its inception to its earliest child rescues.

“You’re going into a black market and into a dark world where people sell people,” OUR founder Tim Ballard said ahead of the film’s premier in Sandy.

Ballard said he hoped the film could result in more widespread action.

“When we have a film that accompanies what we’re doing, it becomes a force multiplier so others get called to action — other governments, other private organizations,” Ballard said. “People in general rise up.”

The debut comes just days ahead of the Super Bowl, an event activists have frequently labeled as the world’s largest human trafficking event.

Some studies have sought to debunk that claim, but police in Phoenix and Homeland Security, according to local reports, have ramped up their efforts this year to stop would-be traffickers — even cautioning local strip clubs to watch for potential warning signs.

Activists have said girls are frequently lured or taken against their will into the sex trade in their early teens.

“There are 100,000 kids in America right now who are in the commercial sex trade,” Ballard said.

Operation Underground Railroad’s efforts to combat child sex slavery internationally have been transparent and enlist the help of other national governments, according to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

You're going into a black market and into a dark world where people sell people.

–Tim Ballard, OUR founder

Reyes took part in an undercover mission in Colombia with the group last fall.

“When I was standing next to these perpetrators and I saw these little children, I wanted to do physical, bodily harm to them,” Reyes said. “It’s an international epidemic and it’s an evil that exists domestically here within the state of Utah.”

The Elizabeth Smart Foundation has merged its efforts with Operation Underground Railroad, Elizabeth’s father, Ed Smart, noted.

“Trafficking is very common, and it changes lives,” Smart said.

Actress Laurie Holden, perhaps best known for her role in the TV series “The Walking Dead,” was also at Tuesday’s premier. She had taken part in an OUR sting operation.

“This has been a problem for a very long time,” Holden said. “What I’m hoping and what I think will happen is that more countries and governments are going to get more passionate about getting involved.”


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