Chris L. Porter: Moved by ‘Sound of Freedom?’ Help a local organization protect and support children.

(Angel Studios) Lucás Ávila and Jim Caviezel in “Sound of Freedom.”

My social media feed has been filled for the past several weeks with family and friends lauding the movie “Sound of Freedom.” The film has become a rallying cry for individuals who see it as a David up against the Goliath of Hollywood’s media empire and for shedding light on what many now believe to be sinister hidden forces at work to traffic and exploit children.

While I applaud the filmmakers for drawing attention to the evils of child sexual exploitation, I worry that it continues to send a misguided message, that the majority of child exploitation comes in the form of stranger kidnappings in far flung areas of the world, requiring dramatic undercover operations to rescue said children.

Again, this is not to say these types of things do not happen, or that rescues are not needed, but the reality is that by a wide margin, the greatest forms of child exploitation occur in the context of close family relationships here at home.

Children are far more likely to be trafficked by parents or guardians in desperate circumstances often brought on by a combination of extreme poverty, drug addiction and/or untreated mental health challenges. Further, some of the most vulnerable children to sexual exploitation are members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially older adolescents who have been forced to leave home by families who have rejected them.

The Division of Child and Family Services in Utah provides an annual report on the heroic work they do on behalf of children and families each year. For 2022, DCFS reported receiving more than 40,000 referrals for potential cases of child abuse and neglect. About half of those referrals led to further investigation by DCFS. Of those 20,000 cases investigated, nearly 9,700 cases were later substantiated — 16% of which were identified as sexual abuse — with over 7,300 children and families referred to community services without further DCFS involvement.

These numbers likely represent a gross undercounting of the actual numbers of children who are victimized here in our local communities since so many cases simply go unreported. I represent one of many examples of adult survivors here in our state that fall into this category.

When we extrapolate local numbers to the national level, government statistics show that nearly 3.5 million children were referred to state agencies for services related to abuse or neglect in the United States in 2020. These numbers have been fairly stable for many years, but for some reason have never garnered the attention or moral outrage that I am seeing expressed by so many after viewing “Sound of Freedom.”

The film has adopted a rather strategic marketing campaign to “pay it forward,” inviting viewers to buy a ticket for those who might not be otherwise able to go to the film. This has helped lift the film to soaring and unexpected profits. If you came away from the film outraged by child exploitation, may I suggest some other ways you can pay it forward?

The type of money that has been poured into this film could revolutionize community agencies if we are willing to commit similar levels of resources to fund them. Case workers at DCFS are often overwhelmed with the sheer number of cases they manage on a daily basis. These frontline workers in our local communities engage in the difficult work of not only rescue but are often committed to the long-term recovery and healing of these children. However, they also face high rates of job burn-out brought on by the difficult and emotionally taxing work, often coupled with little compensation.

We could also pay it forward by volunteering our time to support any of the many worthy community agencies that are dedicated to helping families and children in crisis, including, but not limited to:

Perhaps one of the more powerful ways we can pay it forward would be for individuals to become anti-poverty advocates, to encourage government officials to adopt local, state and national policies to help alleviate poverty on a much larger scale.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s proposal to expand the child tax credit would help to alleviate poverty for millions of families. This could also go a long way to help ameliorate the desperation that drives some parents to exploit their own children.

And if we are truly dedicated to the eradication of child exploitation, then we must rally individuals, communities and government officials to do all in their power to protect our most marginalized children, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. Seeing my state and community rally around these and many other worthy efforts to reduce childhood victimization here at home, now that would truly be a glorious new “Sound of Freedom.”

Chris L. Porter is a professor of Human Development in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. The opinions expressed here are his own.