South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson remembers how wrong he was, a short time ago, about human trafficking. He relates to the shocked expressions he gets when he talks about it now.
“I lived in total ignorance, and I was a career prosecutor,” said Wilson, who has worked to bring new and stronger state laws to combat trafficking. “I couldn’t believe it would happen in my hometown.”
Wilson recently told a gathering of Clover-Lake Wylie Republican Women members and guests he can guarantee they routinely come across victims on a weekly basis, as do people across the state. Wilson remembers when he didn’t “think human trafficking was a real thing” in this country, and certainly not in his state.
“The Hollywood myth is human trafficking is some sort of exotic crime,” he said. “Human trafficking is in our community today.”
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There were 235 reported cases last year prompting investigation in South Carolina. There were 50 cases closed by convictions. Not all cases are sex trafficking, which is just a part of the human trafficking problem.
“Many of those were labor trafficking cases,” Wilson said.
A trafficking law was passed in 2012 and updated in 2014 to allow law enforcement to go after traffickers the way they would drug traffickers. Prior to the recent rules, Wilson recalls a woman who had been victimized in several municipalities, having to recount her ordeal in each of them since prosecution efforts couldn’t extend jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Wilson said the update was critical to prosecuting those types of cases.
For him to leave home in the mid-state to Lake Wylie involved driving through six counties and two states.
“The bad guys cross county lines just like we do,” Wilson said.
Trafficking convictions carry 15, 30 and 45-year sentences as multiple convictions mount. Crimes involving a child tack on an extra 15 years.
Trafficking is an estimated $150 billion practice worldwide, with the United States the top destination for it. There are about 21 million victims annually. Areas like Charlotte and Myrtle Beach are hubs, Wilson said.
South Carolina now has a task force through Wilson’s office, along with a full-time coordinator and prosecutors just for trafficking cases. Law enforcement is being trained, learning to look for signs.
“We’re training law enforcement. Now cops are asking those few extra questions,” Wilson said.
Lisa Haba, daughter of a women’s club member, is assistant state attorney and co-chair of the Seminole County Human Trafficking Task Force in Florida. She also spoke Friday and said Florida has the third highest human trafficking figures in the country. Haba works in a suburb of Orlando, and said even residents of Lake Wylie shouldn’t think they’re immune to encountering victims.
“It’s not that different there than the community you live in here,” Haba said.
Many victims come from foster care or other social service programs. Haba’s data shows one in three runaways are solicited for sex within 24 hours, one in six runaways will become involved in trafficking. More than half of foster care children show signs of post traumatic stress disorder, she said, due to sexual abuse.
Nationally, there were more than 8,000 trafficking cases reported last year, up 35 percent from 2015.
Because the issue is so common, Wilson and Haba say there is plenty people can do to help combat it. First is by raising awareness with talks like Friday.
“There’s exposure to this in our everyday lives,” Haba said.
Flights, hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs are common places where trafficking victims are taken. Haba said to look for signs of fear, of one person constantly answering for another, for injuries and a lack of eye contact from a potential victim. She urges people who see something to report it to law enforcement. The worst that can happen, Haba said, is someone misreads signals and little comes of it.
The best, she said, is a life may be saved.
It’s an all too human solution to a human problem.
“It takes a human being to see it, recognize it and report it,” Haba said.
In South Carolina, businesses and individuals have severe penalties awaiting them if they try to profit off trafficking, Wilson said. People hiring prostitutes have traditionally been arrested and charged in the state, he said, as have the prostitutes themselves. Now, law enforcement is going the extra step to see what role, if any, trafficking has in those incidents.
“We never pulled back the layers,” he said.
Wilson says the state can combat trafficking, but it starts with people, politicians and law enforcement willing to talk about and quantify the issue, then work toward solutions.
“The reality and the sad truth is human trafficking is very much a crime that is happening here in this community,” Wilson said.