Crime & Courts

‘Modern day slavery’: Richland County leads SC in human trafficking cases, report says

FBI underage sex trafficking crackdown leads to recovery of 84 minors

FBI agents and task force officers staged operations in hotels, casinos, and truck stops, as well as on street corners and Internet websites.
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FBI agents and task force officers staged operations in hotels, casinos, and truck stops, as well as on street corners and Internet websites.

Richland County leads the state in reported cases of human trafficking, according to a newly released annual report from the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

In 2017, one in five phone calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline originated in Richland County, the report reads. It’s the most recent data available and only indicates when a call is made to the hotline.

“I don’t say this ... to say Richland County is doing something wrong. Frankly, I think Richland County is doing something right because they’re finding it,” Attorney General Alan Wilson said during a Friday news conference at the State House. “The more you look, the more you find.”

The S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force released its annual report Friday. The task force is made up of more than 300 participating members, including law enforcement, solicitors, state agencies and nonprofits, who all work together to combat human trafficking in South Carolina.

According to the annual report, the state charged 13 people with human trafficking last year and closed 64 cases.

“But we know this number pales in comparison to what is actually going on,” said Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, who plans to help champion the fight in her new role.

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Human trafficking, often referred to as modern day slavery, includes exploitation of both adults and children in sex and labor. While it’s alive and well in South Carolina, officials say they’re becoming better equipped to identify and assist victims, as well as investigate and prosecute offenders.

“South Carolina has a distinct honor. Since 2012 until now, we have gone from one of the worst states in the country in how we enforce, fight and combat human trafficking to one of the best states overall in the country,” Wilson said.

Shared Hope International, which grades each state on the strength of its laws addressing child sex trafficking, named South Carolina as the most improved state in the nation from last year, increasing the state’s grade from a C to a B in 2018.

Members of the task force attribute the success to legislation that went into effect last year. One of the new laws clarified sentencing for people convicted of trafficking a minor, establishing the penalty as a maximum of 30 years in prison for the first offense.

Previously, the law called for an added 15-year penalty for trafficking a minor, on top of the 15 years for trafficking in persons. But that law was being interpreted incorrectly, often running concurrently, which allowed offenders to slide by with only 15 years, said Rep. Russell Fry, R-Myrtle Beach, who sponsored the new legislation.

“We clarified that to increase those penalties and be very clear about what the original intent of the Legislature was,” Fry said.

In addition, the S.C. Department of Social Service’s definition of child abuse and neglect was changed to include minor trafficking victims, the report shows. That change was required to bring DSS in compliance with federal regulations. But since last year, the agency has already identified 28 children as potential victims of sex trafficking. That number doesn’t include those children already receiving care through DSS, the report shows.

Service providers are forming around the state to meet the needs of victims. Task force members are establishing a standard of care to prevent re-victimization. First responders, medical professionals, law enforcement and judges are going through training to spot the signs of trafficking.

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Last year, Richland County had 15 percent of all new cases in state court — fourth behind Greenville, Horry and Greenwood counties, respectively — but held 52 percent of the state’s pending cases, the report says.

The majority of reported human trafficking cases involved adult women in illicit massage or spa businesses, according to the national hotline.

At the end of 2017, there were 72 cases pending in state courts. By the end of last year, the report shows that number had dropped to eight.

The vast majority of cases, 52 percent, were closed or referred to federal prosecutors. On the other hand, 20 percent were dismissed and only 13 percent resulted in a guilty plea. The rest pleaded to other charges.

Wilson said one of the many goals for the task force includes more money from the Legislature to help with statewide data collection.

“You can’t manage a problem until you measure a problem,” Wilson said.

Established in 2012, the Human Trafficking Task Force aims to spread awareness, identify and allocate resources for victims, establish a standard of care and provide training for the investigation and prosecution of traffickers — commonly known as pimps.

“I can’t be more proud of how far we’ve come in the last six years,” Wilson said. “This is not a partisan issue. This is not a political issue. This is not an issue based on geography or where you fall on the socioeconomic system. Anybody can be a human trafficker, anybody can be a victim. We all own the problem and everybody here has got to be part of the solution.”

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The State’s project reporter Cody Dulaney has covered issues facing law enforcement in South Carolina and Florida for six years, earning him three statewide awards for his work. He received a degree in journalism from the University of South Florida, where he also studied criminology.
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