Since the release of "The Sound of Freedom," a movie focused on Tim Ballard's story of rescuing children from sex trafficking rings, many Utahns and Americans are more aware of child exploitation overseas — which can be a good and bad thing, according to Saprea, a Utah-based nonprofit focused on preventing child sex abuse.

Founded in 2014 by Derek and Shelaine Maxfield, Saprea was started to help provide hope and healing for survivors of childhood sexual abuse — and says in 2022 alone, raised over $5.1 million to provide healing services and scientific-backed retreats for the survivors. Since then, the nonprofit has also provided education resources about child sex abuse and trafficking and how to help prevent it.

After the movie's release, Saprea's leaders and founders have centered their efforts on providing clearer dialogue to Utahns about what they say is the true nature of child sex trafficking. That is, children are much more likely to be trafficked and abused locally than overseas in less complex but equally damaging ways, according to Chris Yadon, Saprea's managing director.

"The majority of child sex trafficking victims in the U.S. were trafficked by a member of their family, and nearly 46% were trafficked by a parent/guardian," a Saprea press release alleges. "This context is critical to understanding the issue. It prompts us to focus our protective efforts and dialogue away from strangers and abductions and toward strengthening homes and families."

Teenagers have much higher rates of sex abuse and violence in Utah than the national average, according to the most recent CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey notes that, in 2021, 21.4% of Utah teenage girls reported being sexually assaulted in the past year, compared to 17.9% of girls in the U.S. who reported being sexually assaulted or abused within that year.

Betsy Kanarowski, Saprea's chief clinical officer, noted that Utah children may be in greater danger due to Utah parents having a false sense of security with the friendly and trusting atmospheres in their neighborhoods and communities.

"Whether it's in a faith community or just the neighborhoods, the people in Utah are very trusting," Kanarowski said. "That both presents risks and potential challenges in the healing process, as well."

Yadon agreed, also adding that "trust is a good thing."

"However, as we think, 'Oh, it's not in my backyard,' it goes right with that believing it's happening elsewhere," Yadon continued. "So we trust our neighbors, our friends, our coaches, our family members, things like that, and believe that wouldn't be happening here."

Much of the discussion around child sex trafficking, as well as "The Sound of Freedom," has become politically polarized, Yadon said — which is another form of exploiting the survivors for one's personal political gain.

"People on the right care about children and want to protect them, and people on the left care about children and want to protect them. We may have differences in how we think we should go about it," Kanarowski said. "The more productive way to approach it is, rather than sink our teeth into political narratives that just further our ideologies and incite our bias in order to leverage power for us, we should take advantage of this as a topic both sides care about to actually find real solutions."

To focus on solutions for trafficking and abuse survivors, Yadon said, it is essential for Utah families to remain open about the abuse and not be afraid to report it.

Being open about sexual abuse

Some Utah children may continue to be abused, harmed or trafficked as a result of families either not knowing how to recognize the signs of abuse or having a greater fear of reporting it, Yadon said.

"Some of the factors that exist in Utah that contribute to reporting, or make reporting less likely, include our family systems. One of the things that's very common with child sexual abuse is when abuse happens in the family, it puts the adults in that family in a very, very precarious position," Yadon said.

Saprea officials say belonging to a religious community can also play a roll.

"Many members of religious organizations in Utah — whether that be Muslim, Jewish or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or any other communities — can often face community pressure about the implications of disclosing childhood sexual abuse. This can cause them to feel significant shame after remembering the abuse because they had no control over the traumatic experience," Yadon said.

Because it may be difficult for some Utahns to open up about child sexual abuse, Yadon continued, it's imperative that leaders do not shame survivors or families that have experienced sexual abuse.

"How religious leaders and institutions talk about and respond to abuse can make a huge difference in people's lives," Yadon said. "Openly discussing risk factors and responding to abuse with compassion and understanding and resources can really make the difference between religion being a protective factor — which is what we want — versus it being something that can add to shame."

Preventing sexual abuse and trafficking

Spare says the best help for children in Utah and across the U.S. who are being exploited or trafficked is to donate to organizations that work to protect local children, such as Prevent Child Abuse Utah and the Malouf Foundation.

"Taking action to protect other people's children is positive and noble, but focusing on others when our own homes and neighborhoods are full of risk is one of the great ironies of our current response to this issue," the release says.

In addition to abuse education, the nonprofit also helps Utah child sex abuse survivors through Utah-based retreats, where survivors can work through many past traumas together with research-based activities, such as art therapy, Yadon said.

"The more we can do to help people be aware, protect themselves, protect the people they love, the fewer people will be abused, and hopefully the fewer people will end up as victims of sex trafficking as well," Jensen said.