Human trafficking a major problem in South Carolina, but where are the numbers?

Published: Nov. 15, 2016 at 3:15 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2016 at 6:38 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Dramatic kidnappings conducted by masked men make for good television, but those images have tainted our view and made us blind to an epidemic growing in South Carolina soil.

"I met this guy. He was really nice. He treated me with awesome respect," Lynn Sweetland said. Sweetland was just 26 when she met an ally in the wake of her volatile divorce.

He suggested a trip to Florida and she agreed, but within days her relief turned to nightmare.

"They took me from South Carolina to Texas and then to Tennessee then to North Carolina and all over. What they did next is where my life completely changed," said Sweetland.

As the facade faded, Sweetland was told she'd have to pay her own way. That meant prostituting at truck stops across several states.

Stories like Sweetland's are a daily reality for many young women across South Carolina. Within recent years, the problem has not only been recognized by state officials, it's moved to the top of the priority list for the Richland County Sheriff's Department.

"As far as a priority, I think we've only delved into it about five years now," Capt. Heidi Jackson said. "Before then, I think it was going. We just weren't aware of it."

But even though investigators see the cases and they know it exists, there aren't currently any statistics to quantify trafficking in South Carolina. That creates several challenges for departments like Jackson's, including funding.

"We have a hard time justifying a grant or that we need people to work on this. Without statistics, how do you really say there's a problem?" Jackson said.

Jackson also believes it's key to awareness, which is where many experts believe the state should focus its efforts right now.

"Without the numbers, does the public really understand that there's a problem? I think the numbers would really awaken the community," Jackson said.

Back in 2012, Attorney General Alan Wilson pushed for a law that was the first in the state to criminalize human trafficking. The law allows for a felony charge for any person who recruits, entices, solicits, isolates, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, or attempts to obtain a victim for sex trafficking, forced labor, or involuntary servitude.

Now, Wilson said the focus is execution and that includes figuring out just how big this problem is.

"Understanding the full scope of human trafficking, we're just starting to get through the apple skin of this problem," Wilson said.

The start of that cut happened last December when we learned that 155 human trafficking victims sought help in our state. But even he admitted, it doesn't paint the full picture.

According to the Polaris Project, there are 21 million victims of human trafficking across the globe. In America, it's believed that one in five endangered runaways are child sex trafficking victims. But in South Carolina, we don't know how big the problem is, although there are people trying to quantify it.

"The statistics take it from anecdotal to real," Wilson said. "And once we get it to a real story, when you can have a real trafficking victim, then people start to open their eyes and more action starts to follow."

But there are challenges. The biggest is that modern day slavery is often hidden from view, according to Sweetland.

"I couldn't talk about it," Sweetland said. "I was too ashamed. I was too embarrassed. I had morals before all this happened. I never would've found myself in a situation where I was a prostitute."

Like many, it took Sweetland years to realize she was victim. It took her even longer to find a name for the abuse she endured: human trafficking.

Megan Madsen had the same experience after falling victim to trafficking a decade ago.

"I knew something happened, but I didn't know what. I couldn't fully work through what had happened if I didn't know what had happened," said Madsen.

"It's a lot of doubting yourself and doubting your perception of what the world was and who people were, who you are as a person. You have to mourn who that person was because you're never going to be that person again," said Madsen.

But she, like many others, continues the fight, even when it seems like it's fueled solely by hope.

"I'm optimistic that we're eventually going to win the war because I have to be," Wilson said. "If you start off something as big as fighting human trafficking
and you believe in the back of your mind that you'll lose, you'll never be able to beat it back. What's the point in starting?"

Reporting is key to helping our community understand the prevalence of trafficking.

Trafficking indicators include victims who claim to be 18 even though they appear younger. The victims may be dressed inappropriately, escorted wherever they go, and likely unable to produce valid identification. They may also exhibit signs of abuse or malnourishment and they may have restricted or controlled communications.

Traffickers use manipulation, emotional abuse, substance dependence, isolation from family and friends along with an endless amount of threats and assault to keep their victims subservient.

The law enforcement community continually adds more ways individuals can report human trafficking in an effort to increase reporting. If you believe an active trafficking situation is happening near you, call 911 to report trafficking. You can also report suspected trafficking to the hotline 1-866-DHS-2-ICE (1-866-347-2423). In Richland County, anonymous tips can be submitted via the department's app, Facebook, or by calling 803-576-3000.

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