Trafficking of adults and children is a growing problem in South Carolina, but a new law gives the state better tools to combat the scourge, according to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
“Slavery is alive and well in this country, and it is alive and well in South Carolina, and I believe we need to do everything we can to eradicate it,” he said. “We have to train ourselves, not just the prosecutors but the judicial branches of government and the regulatory branches of government.”
Wilson, the son of Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, spoke Tuesday before about 300 people at the S.C. Association of Counties’ annual conference at the Hilton Head Marriott Beach and Spa.
Wilson said the problem can take many forms, including forced prostitution of children and adults. It also includes forced labor, especially of migrant workers. In one particularly gripping story, he told of a Michigan teen coerced into prostitution after being date raped.
The state’s new Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together law enforcement agencies, victims’ advocates and other state agencies, also is working to prevent and to prosecute these crimes. The task force is the result of a law that Gov. Nikki Haley signed late last year.
Related efforts aim to train regulators and other officials who might encounter signs of teenage prostitution and trafficking during building inspections or other daily activities but lack the training to respond.
“You’ve got a case where someone is walking into a business to do an inspection and in the back of that business they see a half-naked 12-year-old girl running around; they don’t have the training to know what to do,” Wilson said.
Even if the inspector reports the case to law enforcement, the child could be gone by the time officers arrive. By the next day, the business could be shuttered and its owners gone.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as many as 300,000 American children are at risk of falling victim to sex trafficking. The agency estimates as many as 17,000 people are illegally smuggled into the U.S. every year.
Wilson also warned the room about online behavior that can get teens in trouble. Teenagers who post photos on Facebook and other social media can make themselves vulnerable to online predators, who can obtain the age, school and other information needed to harm a teenager from a single photo.
Teenagers also need to be aware that sending explicit images of themselves or others is a serious crime if the person is a minor, he said. In some cases, the teens who send these explicit images could face charges for creating or distributing child pornography.
Beaufort County Councilman Tabor Vaux, who attended the conference, called parts of the speech dealing with sex trafficking “eye-opening.”
Vaux, a former assistant solicitor in the 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes Beaufort County, also appreciated Wilson’s points about teenage behavior.
“I really like that the attorney general is going to schools and getting the message to teenagers that what they post on the Internet could haunt them for the rest of their lives,” he said.