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A Podcast on Human Trafficking

EP 03 | Bird in Chains

By June 22, 2020November 15th, 2022No Comments
Episode 3 Artwork

Laura Parker (TER President) talks with female Delta Operative, Sarah, about her experience on the front lines of the fight against human trafficking. Sarah shares details from the vulnerable moments with trafficking victims and explains the extraordinary sequence of events that led an ordinary woman to become a covert operative with The Exodus Road.

Episode Transcript

Note: Until All Are Free is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a third party speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Sarah: (00:01)
My name is Sarah. That’s not my real name, but my name is Sarah. And I raised four kids. I home educated those kids. They all went off with scholarships to college. And I had a one liner that one day I’m going to race a car. So I got into racing at 57 years old. I do extreme rally racing around the world, and the purpose of all of that is to raise awareness, raise funds and make a difference in the world problem of child trafficking. And that’s how we got connected to Exodus Road.

Preston Goff: (00:49)
This is Until All Are Free, a podcast by the Exodus Road. I’m Preston Goff. If you’re not familiar with our organization, the Exodus Road is a nonprofit dedicated to the strategic fight against human trafficking across the globe. We gather intelligence, empower nationals and facilitate rescue missions alongside local law enforcement. As we fight to end human trafficking around the world.

Preston Goff: (01:18)
The Exodus Road was founded in 2011, and to date we’ve celebrated over 1,375 rescues and 688 trafficker arrests. On today’s episode, we have a unique opportunity, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, to have a conversation with a female Delta operative at the Exodus Road. Now, because at the time we were honoring the shelter in place guidelines that were enforced across our country, this episode was recorded virtually. You’ll hear our president and co founder Mrs. Laura Parker in conversation with Sarah. A quick listener note, for security reasons we’ve chosen to use an alias for Sarah. And this episode also includes descriptions of abuse and sexual violence that may be triggering to some listeners. Okay. Here’s the interview.

Laura Parker: (02:14)
All right. Sarah, it is so good to have you on the podcast today. Thank you so much for taking the time and having the conversation.

Sarah: (02:24)
Laura, this is a great privilege and an honor. It’s just fantastic to be here with you.

Laura Parker: (02:31)
Oh, well, I, I know that you have journeyed along in the fight against human trafficking for quite some time now, and I’d love for you to take some time just to bring us along your journey, your life, your background, and how you got interested in this issue in the first place.

Sarah: (02:56)
Well, what I always say is, this issue found me, I didn’t find it. It was a chance encounter with somebody who is working with the FBI. We were on a tour bus together. He was sitting across the aisle from me with his fiance. I asked him what he did for a living and he began telling me, which I was really surprised that he would share with me that information. And he was undercover and he was involved with arresting people that were, it was basically child pornography, is what it was. And it was really young kids, kids that can’t talk. So five years and younger.

Sarah: (03:36)
And I was totally shocked. And it grabbed my heart, it wrenched my soul. And I thought, “What in the world?” This is happening in my country, in our country. It’s one thing if you hear stories far away places. But when you realize it’s in your backyard, it’s in your home, it’s in your land, I was just dismayed and shocked and horrified by the whole thing and started researching.

Sarah: (04:02)
And then it was actually shortly after that, I was on a Hertz rental bus, going to the Hertz office to the lot, to pick up a rental car, sat down next to a man who had his phone open, and I just happened to glance over as you do when you’re sitting down next to somebody. And he had his phone out and he had a pornographic picture of a really young child, one, one and a half years old. And I thought to myself, “Wow! This is finding me. This is knocking on my heart. This is something I need to be doing something.” There’s a message out there, in this world, in this universe by, I believe in God saying, “You need to do something about that.”

Sarah: (04:40)
So it was in the pursuit of all of that and learning all about that, that I realized these two things are very much tied, hooked together with child trafficking. The very same kids that are being photographed or videoed are being trafficked, and how this fuels the whole trafficking industry, because of the people that are watching those images, are also the people that are perpetrating this crime against children. So that’s how it started for me. And you get on the internet and you start researching and studying something and, I saw the numbers and realized how rampant it was and how worldwide it was, and just learned a lot more about it. And that’s how my involvement began.

Laura Parker: (05:21)
Yeah. And so your heart’s been stirred for human trafficking. Tell us a little bit about how you connected with the Exodus Road and then what was your journey or your process to want to actually do investigations? Because it’s one thing to care about an issue and advocate for it. And it’s another thing as an adult woman to say, “Hey, I actually want to be on the front lines of this work.” Can you tell us a little bit about your process in your journey there?

Sarah: (05:51)
So I believe that we’re given three things, time, talent, and resources. And I felt compelled to give all three. So I started immediately wanting to give money. You’re older in life, you sometimes have resources that now you can start giving more. You’ve raised your children and those expenses maybe are to the side. And so I wanted to donate money, and then I had time, and I believed that I had talent. Talent would later be defined whether I could pass the testing that was required to be a Delta operative. So, it was in that process of researching and finding out, who are the credible people that are working in this area? Who are they? And there was a few, two or three, that I contacted, that are national organizations here in the United States, very well known organizations.

Sarah: (06:49)
And I said, “I want to get involved. Who’s doing work in this area? And Exodus Road was one of the main names that came up. And when I see a name come up two or three or four times, then I say, “Okay, there’s credibility.” And so that’s how I got connected with the Exodus Road.

Laura Parker: (07:15)
I remember when we first met, in this room actually, and talked to you for the first time and heard your story for the first time. And I think fast forward a couple years, and here you’ve just come back from your first actual deployment. Can you tell us a little bit about what you were feeling and thinking when you hopped on the plane and began that first journey to the front lines?

Sarah: (07:41)
Well, excited. That’s stating it mildly, and yet nervous, very nervous not knowing, “What would I be doing? Who would I be with? What would I be confronted with? How would I handle it?” All those things. I’ve passed this initial screening, but no matter how hard and how carefully you do all that screening, I’m sure there’s still instances where people surprise you. And I didn’t know if I would personally be able to handle what I was going to…

Sarah: (08:14)
And as specifically, I had envisioned that I would be going into places where there were children or women or men being trafficked, and I would probably be seeing things that would be difficult to view. And I wasn’t sure how I can handle that. So in my spirit or my soul as a person, I was concerned if it would damage me, if I would have terrible dreams afterwards or mental imagery that I couldn’t wash out. I didn’t know how it would affect me as a woman and as a person. So those were some of the concerns I had.

Laura Parker: (08:51)
Tell us a little bit about, the first few days of a deployment is always training… Did you feel like the actual work, the actual process of going into the red light districts for the first time, practicing with body worn gear, learning what to spot and how to do field reports? The actual work itself. Was it harder or easier than you expected? Did you find yourself struggling or did you catch on pretty quickly?

Sarah: (09:23)
I was surprised what a cool cucumber I was, and really, really surprised at that. And then also, as far as doing the work on the computer and writing the reports and all that, we had a team, that we did it together and I was able to add to that process and help them out. So actually it just felt like it was a job that I was suited for. Like, “This is it, this is perfect. I’m supposed to be doing this.” It was a confirmation.

Laura Parker: (09:50)
That’s awesome. I love hearing that. I think that you’re totally right in that. Those environments, you don’t know how any person will react to them unless they’re thrown into it and try. And so it’s neat that you had that experience of it feeling natural. And tell me a little bit about, so on this deployment, you were the only female operative on a team of male operatives. Tell us a little bit about what it’s like to do undercover investigations into sex trafficking as a woman. And how is that different, perhaps, than the experience of a man or that the types of intel that men can gather? What was it like, just as a female, being in those places?

Sarah: (10:41)
The people I’ve worked with, so we were split up into groups of two or three, and I was paired with just the right guys. And yet I could have been paired with any of them and it would have been great, but they were actually two of the most experienced individuals that have been working with you all the longest, doing this investigative work in the Delta team. I gained a huge respect for them, a deeper respect for them for what they do, when I saw the environments we were in. It is not, and I say I was a [inaudible 00:11:16] cool cucumber, and I could handle it, it is tough.

Sarah: (11:20)
You go in those places and the things that you’re seeing, what those girls are being subjected to, what their lives are like, the expressions on their faces, the men that are in there, the women that are in there, and it’s hard. It is super, super hard. But I felt, for me personally, I know I’m sort of… This is aside to what you were asking me, but I felt personally, there was a bubble of protection around me, that I had been protected. And I was able to see and to feel, but not have it have the negative impact on me.

Sarah: (11:59)
And the men that I was with, I just got a respect for them, because we’re different. Men and women are different, and men are more visually stimulated than women are. And how professional they were and how they interacted with those girls that we were with, everything about how they did that, which is a really tough thing to do, I was just blown away by. And then how we were able to, because of just, I don’t know, they would like angels in garb, like warrior angels or something. I don’t know how else to explain it.

Sarah: (12:41)
And I’m not maybe not answering your question, I’m sorry. I just go back. I’m just being back in that place right now and seeing it and feeling it and hearing it. And as a woman, I think in one way it’s easier for us because we don’t have that part of us that’s more visually engaged. And then also we can have a compassion for those girls that they don’t feel. The men that I work with, they feel that compassion, of course they do. But I feel it as a woman being in her place, in her shoes, in her life.

Sarah: (13:17)
And then you reflect back on the things you’ve gone through, because all of us as a woman have had things happen to us through the years, whether it’s through a boss or a casual acquaintance. There’s things that we have experiences of that guys just don’t have. Where men touch us where they shouldn’t, talk to us the way they shouldn’t and objectify us. So we can feel and understand what they’re going through in a different way. And I thought it was so important for those girls to even have me there as a woman, because I could connect with them in a way that the guys couldn’t. And I could see and feel what they were experiencing in a way those guys can’t.

Laura Parker: (13:58)
I just totally affirm what you’re saying. I think that the times that I have been in those types of scenarios and brothels with different members of the team, I think there is this connection that females have. I think there’s an immediate friendship and safety in a world that is predominantly male dominated. I think that idea of having a bubble or being a warrior angel, I think in a lot of ways, just the fact that you were a woman in a place that was selling sexuality so overtly, and so exploitatively, I would imagine that you were probably the warrior angel for a lot of those girls too, that you interacted with. So, totally made sense, everything you just said.

Laura Parker: (14:53)
Can you tell us a little bit more about that? As far as, if you were a fly on the wall and you were looking at how girls, potential victims that you were trying to identify, how they interacted with your male counterparts, operatives, and how they interacted with you. What would be some of the differences that you noticed?

Sarah: (15:16)
Definitely as a woman, and they could tell that I wasn’t there as a patron. My, our, cover was, I was hanging out with some guys , we’d met in the hotel, it was my first time there. Taking a trip on myself. I heard this was a fun place. They said, “Come along with us.” “Hey, we’ll take you around.” So I was more there as an observer as having a party, not as a person who was going to be participating in purchasing sex or something. So they just were, the looks on their faces, in their eyes, how they let that veil drop and show they were just children. Because we would find the youngest people in that room. And that’s who we sat down with. The girls that we thought were minors. And then you try to get the information to see if they truly are minors.

Sarah: (16:05)
And there’s certain signs you can tell by their body, and it’s development and different things. And then you try to learn from their story and get information from them through the things that they tell you. But they just were so open. And so they just could relax because you weren’t preying on them. They could relax and just be themselves and just start talking. And through all of that, you were able to learn a lot and get the information you needed to give to the police. Where they’re from, how old they are, who they’re here with, how long they’ve been there, and just get their story.

Laura Parker: (16:40)
I think it’s so beautiful to hear from your perspective, just how an actual deployment is. I think so many people are so interested in what it’s actually like on the ground, in all of its reality and grittiness and nobility and horror. I know that in deployments, during deployments, the team does debriefings every night and every morning. And I know that Matt talks a lot about something that he calls, the haunting. It’s that idea of, you go out and you do investigations in the night and then in the morning there’s one story, there’s one girl, there’s one image, there’s one something that happened that is harder to shake, that stays with you. Can you tell us a little bit about what, perhaps, may have been hauntings for you? Are there specific stories of people that you met or things that you saw that were hard to shake the next morning or are even hard to shake now, several months post, post it happening?

Sarah: (17:48)
So we spent time in this one, I guess they’re called Gogo bars, like three nights out of the week. So those girls faces, I spent time with them and I would see their faces, and I see their smiles. That’s what I see. I see their smiles and their bright eyes and their innocence and their youth, and I think about, and I did then, I think about my daughters when they were that age in high school, 15, 16, 17 years old. And what would they be experiencing their first kiss, their first date, the first, all these firsts in their life, right? And that innocence and that fresh little bud of a flower. And they got to show that face to us. I got to see that face.

Sarah: (18:34)
The one girl who was a minor, I remember her name, and her Facebook image, which was a tweety bird wrapped in chains. And she’d only been there for a month. And that was her… We put out an image of ourselves, right? It’s either us doing our favorite sport or that’s with their kids, so all those things that we use to identify who we are. And that was hers. And it’s not Facebook, it’s another kind of app they use over there in Asia. And I’m sure at some point you’re just going to have to change that, because if her mama-san or papa-san finds out, she’ll probably have to change all that. And the fact that she even gave us that information, and these other girls gave us a way to communicate with them. They don’t give you, they’re not supposed to give you that information of how to get ahold of them and how to communicate with them outside of the workplace. But they gave us that.

Sarah: (19:26)
You were asking about the hauntings of things that stick with you and what we go through in debriefing, and yet there’s always somebody. There’s either a face of a girl or there’s a face of a customer in there, and you see how depraved they are and you’re wondering how the darkness that their life is filled with, and the emptiness, and the insatiableness of what they desire that will never be satisfied. It can’t be. And you see that look on their face. Sometimes it’s like they’re trying to get that feeling, get that sensation, or get that whatever that makes them feel whole, but they’re looking in the wrong place and they’re never going to get it.

Sarah: (20:13)
And in the process they’re harming these people’s lives, these young people’s lives, these young girls or these young boys lives. And yeah, there’s always something that comes out, at least one thing every night that sticks with you. And I focused on those girls faces that I’ve remembered. There’s some John’s faces that I remember and that darkness in those eyes, and the hole in their soul. And try not to go back and think on that, but think about the smiling girls. And somehow we’re going to get them their life back, and a new story and a new beginning and all that. That’s what I like to think about.

Laura Parker: (20:49)
Most of the places that you went into, how many customers would be there? If these girls are dancing on the stage and some of them are hiding and some of them are shy, and maybe they’re 14 or 15, how many people would be in one of those establishments?

Sarah: (21:06)
It depends on, if you’re going at eight o’clock at night or 12 o’clock at night, right? And as the night gets older, more people are there. And there’s always more popular places than others. But you can have them be, so there’s some of the places where we went are so packed, there’s no seat. There’s no place to sit down. And so it’s standing room only. And everything obviously is up against the wall, so everybody can look into the middle of the room where all the action is, where all the girls are. And there’s people working there that are clicking fingers or doing noises with their mouths, or having ways to put lights, little laser lights, to beam on different girls, telling them what to do, who to go with, what to do. You’re constantly being directed. Who’s a customer, they need to be working or selling more drinks, or getting up there to dance or whatever.

Sarah: (21:59)
They’ve got a board with all their names on it. And when they’re on and how many minutes they’re on, and it’s timed. So they’re on for so many minutes and then the next group of girls goes up. And the girls that come off then sit around with the guys or the girls or whomever. Right? So it’s all very orchestrated, very organized. It’s a business. And it’s run like a business. It’s absolutely about making money. And there could be hundreds of people. And sometimes there’s levels. There’s two floors. The main floor will be, if the police come in, the worst stuff’s on the second floor, you got to go up the stairs. And the stuff that’s still what we would call like, “What in the world is going on here are, are you kidding me?” That’s stuff on the main floor. And then the step above is, “You’re really kidding me. This is not what’s happening. This can’t be happening.”

Sarah: (22:51)
But they’re packed. They’re just packed. It doesn’t matter what night of the week, they’re packed. And people from all over the world are in there. People from India, males from India, males from the middle East, from China, Japan, not many local people. They don’t go there, it’s too expensive. They have their own haunts. Europeans, people from all over the world, Americans, whatever, all there. It’s a representation of the whole world.

Laura Parker: (23:24)
Yeah. And how much did you find in your experience? It would be, I know you guys gathered this kind of evidence, how much would it be to take a girl and have sex with her? What were some of the average prices that you heard?

Sarah: (23:39)
Well, again, you can do things there on site, and basically it’s just a tip. And you get permission of whoever’s in charge. And they do it off in a corner or behind other people, or out in the open, they do stuff. Or there’s what’s called short time. So you take them for up to an hour, or you can take them for four or five hours. So there’s different prices. And Laura, I don’t remember. I know it’s dirt cheap, it’s dirt cheap but I don’t remember what it is. And the girls only get a super small percentage of all of that. And again, that money goes toward their debt. So, yeah.

Laura Parker: (24:27)
Okay. I just love talking to you. I have a few more questions. One of them is not actually on the paper. But I would love just to get from your perspective, what was it like working with the national team? The volunteer operatives come in and for deployments, and it’s really in support of the ongoing work of our national team. So what was it like interacting with our national staff that you got to work with?

Sarah: (25:00)
Again, first of all, being impressed by the people that you have that are full time with you guys, and then the Delta people that worked with volunteer for you guys and being impressed with them, the national staff, 24 carat, they’re amazing. And it’s made up of the team that we worked with, the locals, men and women, and the hours they put in the dedication they have, their fervency, the passion that they have, the commitment that they have. They’re in.

Sarah: (25:29)
It’s like they’re going, they’re getting the stuff they’re getting the information, they’re taking our information. They’re taking that, they’re developing it. They’re getting this opportunities for the next day or the day after that. They’re getting what we gathered, getting it to the police, showing it to them and saying, is this enough? What else do you need? Giving us that information in real time so we can go back, say, “No, you’ve got to go back to that place and we need that.” That photo you’ve got of hers from the wrong angle. When you take a photo from this angle, we can’t tell her age, but if you take it from this angle, someone, because of the lighting, you can see their facial features. You can see their skin, you can see everything and you can see how old they are.

Sarah: (26:04)
So real life information. And they were there in the morning when we were doing our debriefings, they were there at night with us when we were in karaoke bars, when we had cover stories that they were like our tour guides, they would be with there, the hours that they put in. They were so impressive. And that is such a key component. Excuse me. That is such a key component. That makes a huge, huge difference. Unlike other organizations that are independent, that go in and “do a rescue, get out,” right? Hand off the person. Those people are there during and after.

Sarah: (26:45)
And the other thing that’s so cool about it, is they care. That’s their country. Those are their children. I always call all the children of the world, our children, but truly those are their children and their people. And so they even have a level of commitment and dedication to this, even beyond what we have.

Sarah: (27:04)
And they’re a huge integral component of why you’re successful, you know that. They’re there when we’re gone, and they follow up. And they push the local police, and they push the local police’s bosses. So if the guy they handed off to was supposed to be a good cop, isn’t doing anything with it, he’s sitting on it, then they’re needling him, and then they say, “Hey, if you’re not going to do this, I’m going to talk to your boss.”

Laura Parker: (27:27)
Yes, I totally agree. I just tell people all the time, one of my greatest honors in my entire life is just getting to rub shoulders with some of these national staff there. Their commitments, their humility, their hearts are just beyond inspiring to me. So I totally agree with you on that.

Laura Parker: (27:57)
So where do you go from here? You’ve been on your first deployment, you’ve been passionate about fighting human trafficking for four years. What do you think the future looks like for you and continuing to fight for freedom?

Sarah: (28:14)
I’m looking forward to my next deployment, which COVID-19 has totally interrupted like many, many things in our lives, right? We were supposed to be going now, and then again in the summer, and then the fall who knows what will happen with those things? But I look forward to that. I know there must be more of these opportunities that I can go and be hands-on and do this. I’m really looking forward to that. We, in our foundation, we are going to be visiting more sites around the world that we have found that are doing grassroots work, whether it’s in prevention and education. That foundation has fundraisers, we collect money. And through that foundation, we distribute funds to charities, grassroots organizations around the world that we take triple and quadruple steps to vet them. And we’re the avenue or the vehicle to take them funds that we have raised from our donors and then distribute those funds to different organizations.

Sarah: (29:14)
So we’re just broadening all of that and sowing more seeds of getting money and seeing what the harvest is, but just looking at amping all that up, growing all of that impact. And then we’re taking this time right now with COVID-19, this pause, to really do that homework, to have a greater impact. So when this lifts we can really go out at force. That’s within our future.

Laura Parker: (29:44)
That’s amazing and inspiring. I think there are so many people that will be inspired and challenged by your story of what it looks like as a female, as a 60 plus year-old female to step in. I think a lot of times people in your season of life are kicking back and relaxing and doing all of the things maybe that they’ve put off, that they wanted to do. And not that, that is bad at all, but just this, this reality that you’re using this season of your life to press in and do really hard, gritty, brave, noble things, is just incredibly inspiring. And I think it’s really indicative of the type of people that we do have at the Exodus Road. Is people from all different walks of life and all different seasons and all different journeys who are coming together and saying, “Hey, we’re not okay with the world where 14 year old girls choose tweety birds with chains as profile pictures, because that’s the reality. We’re just not okay with that world.”

Preston Goff: (30:56)
If you would be interested in supporting the work of Sarah and the numerous national operatives and Delta volunteers that are on the front lines of anti-human trafficking. I want to encourage you to consider joining the Exodus Road’s Search and Rescue Program. A gift of $40 a month can fund a night of investigation on the front lines of our fight against human trafficking. And as a Search and Rescue member, you’ll receive insider access to rescue updates and special interviews with the everyday heroes, bringing light to dark places, learn more and join search and rescue by visiting

Preston Goff: (31:33)
Until All Are Free, is a product of the Exodus Road, a nonprofit dedicated to the strategic fight against human trafficking across the globe. The podcast is hosted by me, Preston Goff, and produced by Isaac Leigh. Our internal themes were produced by Lucas Leigh. And the music that you heard on our intro and outro of this episode was produced and generously donated by City of Sound. To be notified as soon as you release a new episode, make sure to subscribe to Until All Are Free wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have a moment, it helps us if you rate and review us on Apple Podcasts.

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Bright Eyes & Innocence

Mother of four adult children, all homeschooled. Entrepreneur. CEO of a philanthropic organization. Extreme rally car racer. Social justice advocate. Undercover investigator for Team Delta in the fight against human trafficking. Sarah is forging a path all her own.

She spent some time recently talking with co-founder and TER President, Laura Parker, about her experience on her first deployment as a VCIO (Volunteer Covert Intelligence Officer) in Thailand.

It was her voice in this challenging, often overwhelming space of human trafficking that caught me off guard. Listening to Sarah recount how she first learned about the problem of trafficked children was disarming. Becoming an undercover investigator wasn’t something she planned to do when she grew up. The problem of human trafficking found her, and once it did, she sought and found her place in the fight.

Sarah describes feeling some anxiety about her first deployment.

"I was concerned it would damage me. I didn't know how it would affect me as a woman and person."

SarahTER Operative

But her decision to pursue this role was rewarded with surprise and affirmation during her first night of investigation.

Young girls being trafficked were taken off guard by Sarah as well. In a world where power and abuse are everyday realities, the girls Sarah interacted with found themselves drawn in by this woman who was somehow a safe haven in the middle of a noisy, packed “go-go bar.” Posing as a tourist looking for a fun night out with her friends, young girls gravitated towards Sarah, sharing their hearts and their stories.

While Sarah is eager to resume deployments, she waits out the closures, travel restrictions, and complications due to the coronavirus pandemic. The girls she met during her first deployment are in her thoughts.

“I see their faces. I see their smiles, their bright eyes, and their innocence.”

An ordinary woman strategically fighting the crime of child sex trafficking, Sarah is quick to identify both the resilience of the abused and the depravity of the abusers. Her interview with Laura Parker will leave you wondering what your role is in this movement, and might just inspire the courage to find it.

Join the Until All Are Free newsletter.

When you join our email community you will receive bonus content and special glimpses into future episodes.