Research has shown that traffickers target children with increased vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities may include a history of running away, childhood sexual abuse, significant substance abuse issues, or living with someone with significant substance abuse issues, and more. Many children in the U.S. foster care system identify with one or more of these situations.
Seventeen-year-old Tricia packed her bag, again, with the few personal items she had, heading to her 6th foster home. She prepared to enter another home full of new, presumably temporary, people. “It’s always hard going to someone’s house so I never packed too much, because I was often in different foster homes,” Tricia said. With her little gym bag in hand, she walked in the door to Jon and Tara Bigler’s house to see what awaited her.
Upon arrival, Tara’s warm smile and Jon’s comfortable demeanor greeted Tricia.
“It was very welcoming,” Tricia said, “The feeling I got when I arrived at Jon and Tara’s house was love. They had a real love for what they did and the kids they took care of. It helped me to feel comfortable to get to know them and stay there.”
Jon and Tara showed Tricia her new room. As she started unpacking, Tara asked to come in and offered to help her. It was important to Tara that Tricia felt comfortable in her own room, but also felt included as a part of the family. They discussed decorations together and took trips to the store to find just the right ones. Jon and Tara understood that their home would never truly be “home” for Tricia, or any of the kids they fostered, but they did everything they could to make it feel as close as possible.
“We wanted them to feel included. They weren’t there just to go through a program or checking a box, they were there to be a part of our family,” Jon said.
About a week after Tricia moved in, she came home from a long day to a post-it note on her bed.
I hope you had a great day, I have been loving getting to know you. – Tara.
Whether she had a bad day or a good day, there was always a note from Tara there to make Tricia feel seen and loved.
WE ARE NOT BLOOD, BUT WE ARE FAMILY
Now in a house of her own with her husband and their 6 children, Tricia smiles as she periodically ruffles through her box of encouraging post-it notes from Tara. Although Tricia only lived with Jon and Tara for a year, the connection between them has only strengthened with time. Tears of joy and gratitude filled the room when Jon walked Tricia onto the dance floor at her wedding for the father-daughter dance, and when he lovingly supported Tricia after the birth of her first-born child. Tara has lovingly stayed in touch with Tricia throughout the years to talk about relationships and life. These moments cemented the connection that Jon described: “We are not blood, but we ARE family.”
108 WAYS TO SAY “I LOVE YOU”
On Jon and Tara’s wall sits a full picture frame of kids of all ages and backgrounds, including Tricia. This collage includes all of the kids they’ve welcomed into their home for varying amounts of time. Ranging from newborn babies to older teenagers, Jon and Tara have fostered and cared for a total of 16 children in their home. About 6 years ago, they prepared to welcome twin girls. They baked cookies, washed bedding and made beds, ran to Target to get them their own stuffed animal, everything they could think of to provide comfort for the girls who had just been through a very difficult day. The twins never left the Bigler’s home, after four and a half years, they were officially adopted and a part of the Bigler family forever.
The Biglers’ hearts extend even beyond those 16 kids. For four years, before having children of their own, they lived in-house and served as “home parents” in a residential youth treatment center.
In total, Jon and Tara have cared for 108 kids.
Jon and Tara are very passionate about how these experiences have positively affected their lives. “We loved people we didn’t expect to,” Jon said. “It gives you the opportunity to show someone you love them,” Tara added, “All they needed was someone to listen and to care, and show them love.”
Jon and Tara explain how they did not automatically just know how to be foster parents, it was something they learned through the process and from the youth they cared for.
RESCUING KIDS FROM HUMAN TRAFFICKING
The Bigler’s passion to help these at-risk youth and children, in part has increased significantly due to Jon’s career as a Criminal Investigator/Special Agent with the Department of Homeland Security. As Jon began working on human trafficking cases, he learned how capable people were of harming children. Back in 2016, Jon worked a case in Honduras while on temporary duty. He assisted with a rescue operation for some siblings that were being trafficked by a family member. “Rescuing those kids, knowing all that they had been through, had a deep impact on me,” Jon said, “It was impactful to remove them from an ugly situation and help them have a better life.”
Jon Bigler is a founding member of three human trafficking task forces in California. After seeing an opportunity to improve processes to combat human trafficking across several cities and jurisdictions, he worked to make a difference where he lived.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A FOSTER PARENT?
Tara is passionate about decreasing the stigma around becoming a foster parent. She said, “It has been amazing to watch my kids show unconditional love to a newborn baby who is only hours old…They would take turns holding and comforting the newborn babies. Even though there was nothing in it for them – they knew the baby may not be there next week, but it didn’t matter. They loved them and cherished every moment with them.”
The Bigler children know that when dad has to be away on a work trip, he is “helping save the kids from scary bad guys.” With Jon gone for months at a time on temporary duty, the kids miss their father very much. But, Tara explains that because of their experiences right there at home with the newborn babies, they understand what helping other kids truly means. They understand the importance of what their dad is doing while he is away.
Jon and Tara do not pretend that being parents is easy, but the positive parts of it have been more rewarding than they could have ever expected. It gives them a higher purpose and meaning to their lives, knowing they are making a difference by simply being a loving heart for someone who needs it. “With 108 different kids, there were 108 different ways to communicate. The hardest part is staying open to different methods with different children. It is important to be flexible and willing to learn,” Jon said.
What this means for you
Jon pays tribute to his wife, whose heart is truly at the center of all of this, and has made so many sacrifices to make a difference for so many children. “I want everyone to know the difference that anyone can make when it comes to human trafficking,” Jon said. “Whether that means educating others, reporting to hotlines, becoming a foster parent for at-risk youth, or volunteering time to local organizations. There is always something that we can do, each and every one of us.”
We invite you to join the global fight to end human trafficking.
Learn more about the crime of human trafficking
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Blue Campaign is designed to educate the public and law enforcement to recognize the signs of trafficking and understand how to respond to potential cases. Visit the links below to access important training materials and outreach cards.
Be a part of prevention
Become a part of the prevention of human trafficking by supporting youth in your community.
Children Need Families (CNF), part of O.U.R. Aftercare, works in partnership with adoption agencies, orphanages, and adoptive families, worldwide, offering a grant subsidy to assist with one of the often prohibitive steps of the adoption process, the cost. Click here to learn more or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
On behalf of all of us here at Operation Underground Railroad, we extend our sincerest gratitude for the Bigler family, and their willingness to share their story with us.