While working for U.S. Naval Intelligence, Brad Dennis 32 years ago began volunteering with local law enforcement search and rescue efforts for missing kids. Four years later, Dennis spent his three-week vacation trying to help Marc Klaas locate his missing 12-year-old daughter, Polly, who had been abducted during a slumber party in Petaluma, California.
Despite a massive search and a nationally publicized campaign, authorities didn’t find Polly until after she had been strangled by habitual criminal Richard Allen Davis. The experience left Dennis emotionally drenched.
Nevertheless, when Dennis retired in 2003 as a naval cryptologic master officer highly decorated for his intelligence analysis and counterterrorism efforts, he assented to a request by Marc Klaas to help other families around the country whose children had been kidnapped. From his Florida home, Dennis remains president of the KlaasKIDS Foundation for Missing and Trafficked Children.
By 2004, Dennis, who also served as a church youth pastor, began to notice a new pattern to child abductions. It started with a case of a 14-year-old girl forcibly pulled into a strange vehicle. Dennis searched the girl’s bedroom and through clues deciphered that the girl might be in a local Motel 6 room. Police arrested a 65-year-old truck driver who had arranged a sexual liaison with the girl through a pimp.
The 14-year-old girl, hospitalized with massive internal injuries, regularly attended the youth group Dennis led.
The ordeal introduced Dennis to the world of human trafficking.
“I was accustomed to finding kids that had been abducted,” says Dennis, 56. “I was not used to finding them being sold in motels or trailer parks.”
Dennis became an early crusader in sounding the alarm in such cases, to law enforcement, to churchgoers, and to the general public. At the time, most people considered trafficking a foreign problem, unaware that human beings could be advertised in such places as Craigslist and Backpage.
After working with vice squads conducting surveillance and sting operations around the country, Dennis helped the Florida Department of Children & Families rewrite its protocols to deal with the problem.
In 2009, Dennis organized the first of what has become known as the BIG Search — a grassroots partnering with hotel staff and churchgoers to be on the lookout for missing and exploited minors — in Tampa in conjunction with the Super Bowl,.
The following year in connection with the Super Bowl in Miami, Dennis partnered with F.R.E.E. International co-founders Michael and Denise Bartel to host another BIG Search. Altogether, the BIG Search has been held at 20 locations, including four times in Las Vegas, where F.R.E.E. International is based. The latest occurred in Orlando, Florida, in August during the biennial Assemblies of God General Council.
Every day in the U.S., Dennis says, 2,300 kids go missing. Many are runaways or have at some level been involved with social services, often being placed in foster care. While not necessarily “bad” kids, they are needy, which makes them a target for savvy enslavers who know how to groom them before abusing them sexually, physically, and emotionally.
“They are running away from something or running to something,” Dennis says. “Pimps and traffickers are very good at spotting and exploiting vulnerabilities.”
While the vast majority of those considered “throwaway” children are recovered, they have been victimized to the point of having more troubles than before because of the trauma experienced.
According to Dennis, there is no prototypical trafficked kid: they are rich and poor, from two-parent or no-parent homes, foster kids and those living in a gated community.
Likewise, there are an array of types who are trafficking kids. Some are operating on their own. Others are part of a local street gang that also is involved in illegal drug activity. At the more extreme level, organized street gangs, outlawed motorcycle gangs, and drug cartels are involved.
The hardest to curtail and currently the most prolific is familial traffickers — a relative selling a child family member for sexual purposes.
Dennis warns parents that giving their children a cellphone or computer is like opening Pandora’s box. Electronic devices are the main recruitment tool of traffickers through advertisements and social media. Parents not monitoring their child’s activity can be in for a rude awakening once a trafficker is able to effectively gauge a child’s interests, insecurities, and schedules through Facebook, Twitter, or other online means.
MULTIPLE MINISTRY EFFORTS
Leading the KlaasKIDS Foundation, Dennis tracks down leads on missing children provided by relatives and law enforcement. He also operates his own ministry, Called2Rescue, which deals specifically with human trafficking. Teams of volunteers work with law enforcement agencies to operate undercover chats with traffickers; other volunteers follow up on individual cases in an effort to find children and youth who are missing. Most of the 20 Called2Rescue volunteers are former police officers or military members. All are Christians.
His newest role is national search director for F.R.E.E. International. For the AG-affiliated ministry, Dennis is promoting large-scale community engagements — the BIG Search — that allow church laity to be involved in rescue efforts.
And if that’s not enough, Dennis for the past 14 years has pastored Eden Fellowship Church in Pensacola. His wife, Tammy, operates a church-based street ministry feeding and clothing the homeless.
Dennis and Bartel became kindred and collaborative spirits when they met 13 years ago. Both stress that organized child slavery and prostitution have been around for decades in the U.S., but now it’s more visible.
“The frustrating thing is the more we’ve made it public, the more it seems to grow,” Dennis says.
Dennis is grateful that F.R.E.E. International is engaged in all the necessary elements to follow up the search and rescue of missing persons. For instance, U.S. missionary Jody Dyess conducts Say Something student awareness school assemblies, while U.S. missionary Brandon Cox leads Oasis Refuge, a restorative aftercare program for girls.
“Mike and Denise’s ministry brings enough of the right people into the whole mix,” Dennis says. “It represents all facets, from prevention and education through rescue and redemption.”
Bartel, a U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries, is equally as effusive in praising Dennis, calling him a friend, mentor, and shepherd.
“Brad is a well-respected leader in the anti-human trafficking movement,” says Bartel, 52. “He has a monster skill set. Denise and I are honored to have as a part of the team. He has been incredibly generous and openhanded with his giftings.”
Unsurprisingly, after 32 years of searches of more than 500 missing or abducted minors, Dennis is a somber person in conversation. He has dealt with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, having seen kids tied to beds and kept in dog kennels. Too often, he is present to identify a dead body. Sometimes a new case retriggers moments that make it difficult for him to get through the day. He also has been a marked man at times, threatened by child murderers and trafficking cartel operators for interfering with their profits.
Yet Dennis credits his supportive wife of 35 years and their three grown daughters with encouraging him.
“I believe in what he’s doing,” Tammy says. “This is his passion and I’m going to stand by him. I love him. He’s my husband.”
Both Tammy and Brad say their faith in God allows them to handle the stress of their ministries. And Brad says he knows he is doing what God called him to do at the age of 15.
“This is my purpose,” Dennis says. “That doesn’t make it easier, but it allows me to function in the middle of it.”
Seeing the fruit of the ministry also keeps him going. In Orlando in August during General Council, 150 churchgoers went on the streets and helped locate a dozen missing and exploited children and youth. Dennis built bridges with local law enforcement.
However, he says the biggest reward of the event involved connecting with a drug-addicted homeless person, who agreed to become an undercover helper for the outreach. That man ended up going into a detoxification and rehabilitation center, has stayed sober, and is now gainfully employed at a motorcycle dealership, Dennis says.