ORLANDO, Florida — The BIG Search, a community event hosted by F.R.E.E. International, recovered 10 missing and exploited children during its Aug. 5-6 mission in the tri-county area of Orlando, Florida.
F.R.E.E International, based in Las Vegas, Nevada, organizes BIG Search events in various cities throughout the U.S. by utilizing mobile recovery units, law enforcement, volunteers, and local church participation to locate missing children.
“It’s amazing what can be done when we collaboratively work together to reach the one who is being exploited, the one who is missing, the one who is being trafficked,” says Michael R. Bartel, Assemblies of God U.S. missionary who co-founded F.R.E.E International in 2007 along with his wife, Denise.
Months of advanced preparation go into organizing one BIG Search event, including community outreach endeavors, rescue operations, and special presentations by partner nonprofit organizations such as Chaddah Dance Company.
By maintaining strong relationships with local law enforcement, teams begin the BIG Search by requesting missing children cases in the city that they can assist in moving forward to resolution.
TRAINING FOR OUTREACH
Equipping volunteers is an essential part of the process as the search for missing children often leads to strip clubs and various dangerous locations. With the support of the AG General Council 2021 and in close partnership with organizations such as United Abolitionists, volunteers received training in Orlando preceding the BIG Search.
Volunteers gathered at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, an academic college of the University of Central Florida, to learn about the targeted missing children in the greater Orlando area and the strategies used during the BIG Search for recovery.
Tomas J. Lares, who founded United Abolitionists in 2009, became an advocate for trafficking victims in 2004 and started what is now the Central Florida Human Trafficking Task Force in 2007.
Lares says the rapidly growing Orlando is a highly active city for exploited children due to the large numbers of tourists and transient residents. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state of Florida is the third largest hub for sexual trafficking in the country.
Lares and his team created the first human trafficking response hotline in 2010, and now oversee the 24/7 intake of calls to the Orlando human trafficking hotline during the BIG Search. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that Orlando is third in the nation per capita for incoming calls.
“If you’re not in it for the right reason, you’ll burn out quickly,” Lares says of the gravity of the recovery operations. “There’s politics involved, but there’s also spiritual warfare.”
MOBILIZING THE LOCAL CHURCH
Brad Dennis, founder of Called2Rescue, serves as the national search director for F.R.E.E. International. Dennis says the local church is the centerpiece of the recovery operations.
The BIG Search’s mission is to build relationships with local churches that can support rescued children by providing tangible resources. Churches can also become equipped to support law enforcement even after the event concludes.
“Our teams go out with Bibles, not weapons,” Dennis says. “That’s the church in action.”
Dennis says the driving factor in missing child cases is a loss of identity among the younger generation. Congregants and parents need to become aware of the ways in which predators prey online upon children who may struggle with low self-esteem.
More children are online than ever before, searching for connection and community. Sex solicitation may occur as subtly as a private message on a social app, luring a vulnerable child into a dangerous relationship.
“Many parents don’t know how many social apps work,” Dennis says. “Churches can train parents on how to use apps to keep their children safe.”
Rick Minchew, founder and president of Anonymity Rescue Ministries based in Pensacola, Florida, also partnered with F.R.E.E. International for the Orlando BIG Search event.
Minchew says ministry leaders and church adherents may not know how to get involved in the fight for missing children, but outreach can be as strategic as going to a park to do missions work and sharing the gospel.
“The ones that overcome are the ones who meet Jesus,” Minchew says of the recovered children. “So, we want to build a church model that works in every city.”
RECOVERING THE LOST
Once the BIG Search operation began in Orlando, teams worked around the clock with sanctions from the police department and the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation on entering certain areas in the city and maintaining protocols to keep volunteers safe.
Equipped with 48-foot-long mobile command center trailers, rescue teams use secured technology software to pinpoint missing children.
“Sometimes all we have is the child’s name and birth date,” says Mel one of the technology operators for the organization whose name is shortened for security. “Our intel analyst searches for information online and digs to find family members that we can contact.”
Mel, who is a survivor of child exploitation, says the team uses various forms of technology to gather information on each missing child until his or her location is determined. Advanced software shows hot spots in the area where gang activity is prevalent, allows teams to track each other’s location, and communicates in real time.
When a missing child is recovered, F.R.E.E. International works with law enforcement to determine the child’s family situation and assist in finding a safe home. Through the assistance of missions organizations such as the AG’s Boys & Girls Missionary Challenge, F.R.E.E. International has connected with case workers and foster families, purchased plane tickets, and fought in court for rescued children.
“The motive is truly to find missing kids,” Lares says. “The one that is found is worth it.”