How “Operation Child Protector” Speaks to the Unwavering Problem Disney has with Sex Trafficking

August 9, 2021 Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes

A total of 17 people were arrested in the Polk County Sheriff’s Office sting, “Operation Child Protector” last week. The group, including three employees of Walt Disney World, were charged with a total of 49 felonies and two misdemeanors, including “traveling to meet a minor for sex, attempted lewd battery, use of a computer to seduce a child and transmission of material harmful to a child.” Police caught the offenders by posing as 13 and 14-year-old children on dating sites as well as social media apps, setting up times for the offenders to meet them for sex. It was reported that 16 of the individuals were from Central Florida except for one man who traveled for the meet-up from Los Angeles.

Disney employees being arrested for child sex abuse offenses is unfortunately not new, with at least 35 employees having been arrested for such offenses from 2006-2014, according to PIX. At the time, the park had about 70,000 employees, and those arrested all held varying positions.  In 2014, Disney Spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler stated that:

“Providing a safe environment for children and families is a responsibility we take very seriously. We have extensive measures in place, including pre-employment and ongoing criminal background checks and computer monitoring and firewalls. The numbers reported by CNN represent one one-hundredth of one percent of the 300,000 people we have employed during this time period. We continue to work closely with law enforcement and organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as we constantly strengthen our efforts.”

In the wake of the 2014 Investigation, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross proposed legislation that would add an exemption to the Polygraph Act of 1988, which makes it illegal for most private companies to polygraph employees. This proposed exemption would “apply to prospective employees whose activities would involve the care or supervision of children or regular access to children who are cared for or supervised by another employee or where there is a high probability the employee will interact with unsupervised children on a frequent basis.” This exemption was never implemented and instances of Disney employees getting arrested for involvement in sex trafficking rings have continued at a staggering rate. In 2018, a cook at a hotel in Disney as well as a food runner at one of the restaurants were among 13 people who were arrested in Operation Cyber Guardian carried out by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. In 2019, two Disney workers were arrested during a child pornography sex sting carried out again by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. The sting resulted in 17 people being charged with approximately 626 charges. Brett Kinney, one of the arrested offenders who was a Guest Experience Manager at Disney, admitted that he was addicted to child pornography and had been viewing it for 22 years. These offenses by Disney employees continue to occur at an alarming rate, leading us to question what protocols or procedures should be implemented to better screen employees before allowing them to work in a place flooded with young children.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers brought legislation that would allow the hotel industry to be sued for willfully ignoring the problem of human trafficking. As a result, victim advocates called on Disney to take a stand on the issue of human trafficking. Disney making their position known when it came to sex trafficking was especially imperative, as “human traffickers often rely on legitimate businesses to sustain their operations and, unfortunately, hotels and lodgings are one of the various venues that traffickers use to exploit their victims.” However, the two lobbyists of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts who were registered on the legislation did not testify for or against it. Disney instead deferred questions to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which they are a member of. The proposed legislation would have also allowed businesses to “protect themselves from lawsuits by providing training to their employees about the signs of trafficking and by adopting protocols for dealing with the problem.” Business owners, with their fear of possible liability, were not convinced, and ultimately, “lawmakers let the whispers of corporations ­– who did not have the courage to raise their issues publicly – drown out the pleas for action from human trafficking survivors.” Although the bill was eventually passed, Disney’s silence on the matter was deafening.

Orlando is a major attraction for theme park lovers, but it also has some negative notoriety. For years, Orlando has been ranked as third in the nation for the number of reports to the human trafficking hotline. A large number of restaurants, bars, clubs, and hotels along International Drive seem to recognize the issue, but let it inconspicuously continue. Tourism and the rapidly growing population make the city a likely place for this exploitation to occur. In 2016 alone, officials received nearly 1,900 calls of suspected trafficking of children and teens to its Department of Children and Families (DCF) hotline. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that it had 790 complaints of adults being trafficking from 2007 to 2016, a number that, based on population size, puts Orlando in third behind Washington D.C. and Atlanta in terms of human trafficking complaints.  This ranking means that Orlando has a more serious problem when it comes to human trafficking than Miami, or Las Vegas, both places that are commonly thought of as hubs for human trafficking.’

This article was written by Sarah Kamide

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