COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Keeping your kids and family members safe when it comes to human trafficking is part of the message of a Human Trafficking Forum put on by the City of Columbia for youth violence prevention week.
We sat down with Attorney General Alan Wilson and Kathryn Moorehead, the coordinator of the state's human trafficking task force to speak about the importance of the forum and what the public should know about human trafficking. They say South Carolina is a state that is very susceptible to human trafficking and they can't catch people, unless the public is aware.
As the state has battled battled against this crime for many years now, steps were taken to start a state-run task force to combat the problem in 2012. Moorehead says Human Trafficking is a crime that is tough to point out and crack down on because it can be many different scenarios.
"You have people that are coming in from out of state to recruit say young girls for sex trafficking and then transporting them to other states. You have people just around the corner. You have family members selling their children. It's not just these people in gangs, it's the person next door, so it's hard to recognize the crime," Moorehead said.
Moorehead said the prominence of social media and the internet have helped to amplify human trafficking as the trafficking plans may be set up online. She says there are several things that parents could look out for to protect their children.
"Parents should be aware of who their children are friends with online. They should be speaking to them about relationships that they create online. Also taking a look not necessarily only at their child, but other children's friends. Is a young person traveling out of town frequently, are they carrying multiple phones? Are they carrying clothes and have gifts that they obviously couldn't afford. Do they look malnourished? Do they look like they may be using drugs and alcohol. Not one of those is an indicator, but as they start to add up, you need to start questioning: Is there something going on?" Moorehead said.
Moorehead and Wilson say human trafficking is also an issue because of South Carolina's proximity to major hubs like Charlotte and Atlanta with easy access to many interstates. These are roads that once the criminals access and cross state lines, they can vanish, essentially until caught. In fact, Richland County is one of the top counties in the state that sees human trafficking. Columbia alone has 4 interstates going through it.
Nationwide, when looking at 2017 numbers reported by the human trafficking hotline, South Carolina ranks in the top 20 of human trafficking cases reported by the state.
Wilson said forums like the one being held at the Charles R. Drew Wellness Center can bring important information to help them prosecute these crimes.
"I tell people all the time that awareness is really what is going to save us not, the investigation and the prosecution might serve as a deterrent, it might even serve as a way to hold those accountable who have engaged in this deplorable activity, but preventing it from ever happening is the goal," Wilson said.
Wilson says he wants to ultimately work to get age appropriate curriculum in schools to help spread the message of prevention early.
"I would like to have the opportunity to go in and talk about human trafficking in an age appropriate fashion to those specific grades so that we can raise awareness among these kids so they can see it and understand it and know how to report it," Wilson said.
Wilson's office said some legislation is in the works that would increasing the sentencing for traffickers of minor victims.
"Currently the first offense is up to 15 years, second offense is up to 30 and the third is up to 45 and the judge can if it's a minor victim involved, the judge can add an additional up to 15 years and if a business owner is involved, they can get an additional 10 years. So what has happened is they don't often run consecutively, or they're not added in this additional 15 years so this bill is aiming to change that so that if a trafficker is trafficking a minor victim, that the first offense will be up to 30 years and the second offense will be up to 45 years," Moorehead said.
The Wednesday forum at 6 p.m. will include a speaker from the Columbia Police Department, Richland County Councilman Jim Manning, and several other community organizations.
Wilson's office said they area planning an Advocacy Summit to address Human Trafficking in June.