KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Putting an end to child sex trafficking. It is a goal that almost anybody would support. And many do, by reaching into their pocketbooks.
But an NBC Action News investigation found a national non-profit organization is not living up to its promoted message of taking child predators off the streets.
At a time when charities are desperate for donations, the investigation also revealed that thousands of dollars raised in Kansas City do not appear to benefit any local organizations.
What happens to thousands of dollars raised in Kansas City?
On a brisk autumn morning, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Kansas City. They sported running shoes to help raise money for Stop Child Trafficking Now (SCTNow) , an organization founded in 2007 whose stated mission is to "stop the demand" of child trafficking.
It is a cause that tugs on the heartstrings of people who donate their money and volunteer their time.
"I was a sexual assault nurse examiner and dealt with a lot of rape victims and things like that," said Rachel Hill, who volunteered at the Sept. 17 event. "This kind of hits home with the children that are taken advantage of."
According to the SCTNow website , the Kansas City event raised $30,726.80. It was one of 33 walks in cities across the United States and Canada.
Sundy Goodnight, the SCTNow National Campaign Director, told NBC Action News all of the funds stay in Kansas City. However, when pressed for more details, Goodnight could not name a local organization that will receive a portion of the donations.
That is what concerns Kristy Childs, who is founder of Veronica's Voice , the only organization in the Kansas City area that provides services to victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Veronica's Voice was founded in 2000 and has grown slowly over the past decade. The organization has finally raised enough funds to open a housing project for recovering victims to live at the beginning of 2012.
Childs said SCTNow approached her about partnering for the event in 2010. However, she said it was unclear if Veronica's Voice would get a portion of the donations for devoting time and effort to promoting the SCTNow event. Curious for more information about the new anti-trafficking organization, Childs picked up the phone and called other non-profits around the country.
"I was told by several people that the money did not stay within the community after it was raised," Childs said. "No one could seem to figure out what was viable that they were doing."
Money funds ‘special operative' teams
So what does happen with all the donations raised by SCTNow? The organization is the main program overseen by Strategic Global Initiatives (SGI), a non-profit founded by Pastor Ronald Lewis and his wife, Lynette Lewis .
The most recent tax documents show SGI generated $823,053 of revenue in 2010.
Some of that money is spent on fundraising expenses, advertising and promotions. SGI also sent a $74,146 grant for Haiti earthquake relief and another $6,040 to South America for "leadership development and adult education."
The only grant within the U.S. listed on tax documents was $43,000 to the North Carolina church founded by Ronald Lewis for "assisting in housing and feeding African AIDS orphans" (only grants of more than $5,000 need to be listed on the Form 990).
However, the largest expense for the non-profit is paying $400,000 per year to fund its special operative teams—retired military and other law enforcement personnel with special training in gathering intelligence.
According to the "philosophy" section on the website, "SCTNow has chosen to fund a bold, new approach—one that addresses the demand. SCTNow targets child predators by gathering information that law enforcement can use to investigate and build cases against child predators."
A well-produced online video also reiterates the mission by claiming, "The same tactics we use to go after terrorists around the world, we're going after pedophiles the same way. This method is effective. It's proven. And it works."
No evidence of arrests or prosecutions
However, NBC Action News found little evidence the approach is working. In fact, SCTNow could not provide one example anywhere in the country where information provided by its special operatives helped lead to an arrest or prosecution.
The September fundraiser took place in the shadow of the downtown federal courthouse, where the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District says it "has prosecuted more trafficking cases than any other District in the United States."
The U.S. Attorney's Office of the Western District also launched the Human Trafficking Rescue Project in 2006, comprised of law enforcement agencies and victims' services organizations like Veronica's Voice.
There are numerous instances on the SCTNow website where a close partnership with the federal government or law enforcement agencies is cited.
When asked, Goodnight said SCTNow is developing partnerships in the Kansas
City area right now.
NBC Action News checked with the Kansas City Police Department, along with the area FBI and Department of Justice offices. Spokespeople for all three agencies said they had no relationship with SCTNow.
Deputy Tom Erickson, a spokesman with the Johnson County Sheriff's Office, confirmed SCTNow had an informational meeting with deputies in early September, though no other meetings are planned.
Nationally, SCTNow said it has a formal partnership with the police departments in Tulsa, Okla. and San Jose, Calif.
"They have come here several different times but have found zero instances of child trafficking," said Sgt. John Adams with the Tulsa Police Department. "But on the off chance they are successful, it is worthwhile."
Results contradict organization's promoted message
The lack of relationships with law enforcement agencies—or examples of arrests and prosecutions—directly contradict the message presented by SCTNow.
In one video, Ronald Lewis said the special operatives teams are "going in and shutting down the demand side by presenting gift-wrapped cases to the FBI."
Retired FBI agent Jeff Lanza told NBC Action News there is no such thing as a gift-wrapped case.
He said providing a tip to law enforcement is one thing. But it is unlikely police or federal agents would be comfortable with private citizens going undercover and gathering information because it could jeopardize a case.
Lanza worries the use of the "special operatives" terminology portrays a vigilante approach.
"To my knowledge, the FBI does not team up with non-law enforcement agencies on the investigation of criminal activity," he said. "While they may have good intentions, it usually doesn't help the crime problem at all."
Lanza said after two years and $800,000 of funding, it is reasonable to expect SCTNow could point to a case where operatives have provided information that has led to a trafficking-related arrest.
"That is a lot of money to throw at a problem and you would expect with any kind of issue that you have documented results with that kind of money being spent," Lanza said.
Bob Flores agrees. He is the former administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, who had the primary mission of prevention and prosecuting domestic child prostitution during the President George W. Bush administration.
Flores thinks the SCTNow approach would be better-suited in a foreign country, but said the organization is asking people to fund what the U.S. government is already paying for.
"It is a wasted effort," said Flores. "The federal government already spends millions of dollars per year funding task forces to do this kind of work."
Leader of ‘special operatives' responds
NBC Action News spoke with Clark Stuart, the SCTNow staff member who oversees the special operative teams. Stuart is also founder of Global Trident ; the company paid the $400,000 annual amount for the investigative work.
Stuart said there is a four-man operations team that travels extensively around the country to gather intelligence. There are also about 25 volunteer and part-time contractors that are called in to minimize costs and utilize knowledge of local areas.
Stuart said special operatives have surveyed at least 10 communities in 2011, with each instance taking a couple of weeks.
Stuart backed away from some of the bold claims made by SCTNow on its website and at fundraising events, saying the goal of special operatives is to gather intelligence about child trafficking and offer it to law enforcement agencies in a raw database.
"This is like a library card," Stuart said. "I'm not asking anyone to give us anything. We go into a community. We gather information and we make it available to law enforcement at no cost. There is absolutely no reason not to have it as a resource."
Stuart admitted that no information has initiated arrests or prosecutions. However, he said nobody involved in the program expected immediate results. He promised operatives would be coming to Kansas City in the near future and have a presence around the country for years to come.
"In the next two to three years, you're going to see an organization that is a major provider of source information to law enforcement," Stuart said.
But there are volunteers like Hill, who wonders if she got the full story when she signed up to help with the Kansas City fundraiser.
"They told us there were several convictions from the information they've gathered," said Hill. "Any organization I'm giving my time and money to… I want to see results. Definitely I think that's fair."