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Caged

"Caged" Continued...

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

Bilsten asked task force prosecutors to write a new law that closed the loophole. The Arizona Senate adopted and passed the bill, SB 1268, unanimously. But three House lawmakers-a liberal Democrat and two Republicans-argued that the bill stripped away the constitutional right to a defense. Bilsten was stunned: She could not imagine anyone opposing a law that punished people engaged in the sexual abuse of children.

Bilsten reached out to several churches, urging citizens to stand up in support of the new legislation. "But they didn't want to hear about it," Bilsten told WORLD. "Child sex-trafficking was not an uplifting story."

Discouraged but determined, Bilsten spoke at a luncheon at Food for the Hungry (FH), the Christian international relief and development organization headquartered in Phoenix and working in more than 26 countries. It was the spring of 2007. Sitting in the audience was FH Senior Manager of City Initiatives Pat McCalla.

In her talk, Bilsten described the dark world of child sex-trafficking. "My heart was so heavy," Bilsten remembers. "I was thinking, Where are God's people?"

When she finished her talk and looked up, she saw tears in Pat McCalla's eyes.

When McCalla heard Bilsten speak, he knew that not only was child sex-trafficking a major issue for Phoenix, but that few in the city were aware of it. McCalla saw that Food for the Hungry could contribute most by acting as a "convener," linking people already working separately on the problem. McCalla connected Bilsten with Vision Abolition, and Bilsten connected Vision Abolition with the government task force.

Soon a meeting was set in which, for the first time, representatives from nonprofits, churches, and government would sit down to discuss a problem that challenged the entire community.

That meeting was the first of many that included law enforcement, child protective services, state and local prosecutors, counselors, even the mayor and representatives of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. To date the coalition has succeeded in toughening penalties for adults engaged in sex acts with minors and in launching a public education initiative that includes Branded, the DeMiguel-produced documentary set to debut on April 12.

Vision Abolition has identified 133 trafficked kids and is now reaching out to 20 to 30 new victims each month. In four years, the coalition's goal is that Vision Abolition will have opened a safe house that will shelter and restore child sex-trafficking victims.

There will be challenges: Funding. Zoning. Legal questions such as whether a facility designed to rescue and restore can also be locked-to protect girls both from pimps and from their own bad judgment. But McCalla, Bilsten, and Superstition Springs' Mark Connelly all said government officials haven't balked at the idea that the planned home will be Christ-centered.

Detective Christi Hein, for one, believes it is biblical values that have made the people of Vision Abolition and Food for the Hungry willing to come alongside her and others fighting child sex-trafficking from within the confines of bureaucracy.

"I think it's only because they're faith-based that they're willing to take this on and to deal with the hurdles," Hein said. "Until this group came along, I had given up. They've given me new hope."

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