NEWS:  State’s battle against sex, labor slavery becomes public

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Human trafficking (hyoo-muhn  traf-ik-ing):   Use of force, fraud or coercion against a person’s will to cause him or her to perform labor or sex acts.  Includes under-age victims performing sex or labor acts even when force, fraud or coercion is not involved.

By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  Only about 1 percent of human trafficking victims escape bondage, according to victim advocates. Of that percentage, few press charges against their assailants, especially if the enslaved person is an adult.

So when South Carolina reports there have been 50 state cases of trafficking in persons closed and 28 cases pending in 2016, that number belies the prevalence of modern-day slavery.

“Slavery never ended,” said a representative** at Fresh Start Healing Heart (FSHH), a Charleston organization that works with the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force. “It’s been going on for so long. It’s just so hidden in plain sight … (But) more people are starting to talk about it so we’re finding more cases.”  The representative asked for anonymity to protect victims helped by the group. (See note at the end of this story.)

The task force, chaired by chaired by the state attorney general’s office,  is leading a charge to increase communication about human trafficking, first by working with law enforcement and support agencies. Now the task force is bringing its efforts to the public to help combat the crime.

“It is critical that we educate the public regarding human trafficking so that we can prevent people from being victimized,” task force coordinator Kathryn Moorehead said this week “If the public is educated, South Carolinians can avoid the risks and also call in tips if they suspect the crime in their communities.”

What the state has been doing

According to the task force’s 2016 report, most human trafficking cases in South Carolina involve minors. Of the 50 closed cases in 2016, 36 involved children under 18; of the 28 pending cases, 22 involved children.

“Unfortunately, human trafficking takes place every day in our country, our state, and even in our neighborhoods,” Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a statement.

The FSHH representative said in her agency’s experience, there have been more adult cases than minors, but few press charges — especially as they are dealing with the psychological effects of being trafficked.

“Youth cases are fairly easy to bust,” the advocate said, adding that state law doesn’t require proof of coercion and victim testimony is often unneeded in prosecuting cases.  “When it comes to adults, if the adults are scared enough and they say they are doing it on their own, it’s harder to charge.”

In 2012, South Carolina passed its first human trafficking laws. Two years later, the state developed its first plan, which focused on training prosecutors and law enforcement in investigations and prosecutions. In 2015, the state allowed state prosecution of those accused of trafficking persons, meaning that a victim did not need to be “retraumatized” in multi-county cases, task force coordinator Kathryn Moorehead said.

“There’s a lot going on (in the state in regards to curbing human trafficking),” Moorehead told Statehouse Report. “The more you talk about this topic, the more you realize it’s incredibly complex and it’s like a rabbit hole, you just keep going and going and going.”

South Carolina’s laws have been called some of the toughest in the nation. The state has steep penalties, criminal liability for business owners engaging in human trafficking, restitution for victims, the availability of civil action for victims and asset forfeiture by convicted traffickers.

Moorehead started as the state’s  human trafficking coordinator in December 2016.  Since then, she said she has been focused on communication and building the infrastructure around it.

More communication

A week ago, the task force launched a new website to provide one central hub for South Carolinians. The site offers information about human trafficking, a way discover events throughout the state, and directions for victims and survivors to connect with support services.

“This new website will help raise awareness about the problem and help victims and survivors of this horrible crime,” Wilson said.

The website includes the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888), statistics and reports on human trafficking, a map of regional coalitions, victim/survivor services, tools and resources, a list of task force sub-committees and how to contact the chairs, a way to request a speaker, and information on South Carolina’s law on human trafficking.

“With the launch of this website, the state has made an important step in the direction of better tackling this crime in our communities,” Moorehead said.

Moorehead also said the task force recently received a $85,000 federal grant from Victims of Crime Act. The money will promote public awareness through public service announcements and billboards, as well as to pay  for professional trainings.

More work still left to do

While much is being done currently across state and local agencies and nonprofits, Moorehead said the state lacks safe houses for minors and a triage center that could expedite services for a formerly enslaved person. She added two nonprofits in the state are working toward safe houses in the state, however.

A subcommittee of the task force is also looking at whether additional legislation needed, Moorehead said.

The representative from Fresh Start Healing Heart said the state task force and agencies “have worked tirelessly to bring education to the public, to law enforcement, to service providers, but I do believe we still have along ways to go, but most importantly with the community.”

She said more education, especially with children around the age of 12, is needed by having awareness programs in school. She added more community awareness is key.

“It’s more of the follow through. Making sure, getting people to stop taking this lightly,” she said.

  • The next task force meeting is 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Dec. 8 at West Columbia Municipal Complex, 200 12th St, West Columbia, SC 29169

** The representative told Statehouse Report: “It’s not about us. It’s about the fight. It’s about the survivors. It’s about the community as a whole, but it has more to do with safety.” The representative asked her name to be withheld because she works directly with victims in the state.

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