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Human Trafficking in South Carolina
It’s happening in more ways and more places than most realize.
It doesn’t matter the time of day. With a pen and paper nearby, Beth Messick spends her free time scrolling through dozens of online advertisements for sex in the Greenville area, jotting down the names and phone numbers listed under nude photos.
She has done it so often, she can recognize certain women by their tattoos and body shape. She focuses on girls who look young — too young — or those who seem desperate.
They are the troubled ones, the women who are likely “trapped in darkness,” she said.
Sex trafficking is a growing problem in South Carolina. Pressure is increasing for police to address the underlying problem vs. making routine prostitution arrests. And advocates are working to fill the growing need for housing, therapy and the other needs of trafficking victims.
The difference between prostitution and sex trafficking comes down to choice — prostitution involves willing participation; sex trafficking involves force, fraud or coercion, according to state law.
Messick works on the front lines of the problem in South Carolina, serving as executive director of Jasmine Road, the state’s first residential community for adult female survivors of sex trafficking. Each survivor in Jasmine Road has a personal story of how they met Messick. For a woman named Andrea, it started two years ago on Backpage.com.
Messick had been searching through sex ads for Andrea, who she believed was a victim of sex trafficking. The State is not using her real name in keeping with its policy of not naming victims of sexual assault.
Meanwhile, Andrea was across town at a friend’s house, sitting on a couch and smoking crack cocaine, when a call came through on her cellphone. It had been provided to her by a man who dealt in drugs and flesh. She fumbled for the phone, pressed the green button and a woman’s voice came through the speaker. That wasn’t uncommon, Andrea said, but they were usually looking for sex.
This woman was offering a way out.
“I didn’t care about anything, other than using drugs and doing things to get more drugs,” she said. “I didn’t have anything else.”
Such is the way of life for victims of sex trafficking, who are often brainwashed into thinking there is no way out. They become trapped in fear of a society that views them as drug addicts and prostitutes, when, in reality, the lifestyle is far more nuanced.
The vast majority of victims are women who have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their past, experts say.
For them, the normal rules of society don’t exist. Relationships come with disturbing expectations. Drugs numb the pain and provide an escape from uncomfortable situations. And addiction is used by traffickers as a tool for compliance.
As of now, human trafficking data is scarce and incomplete. But the information that is available offers a small glimpse into this dark world.
In 2016, 56 cases of sex trafficking were reported statewide, according to an annual report produced by the S.C. Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force. The following year, there were 87 reported cases.
Messick is one of many people helping victims in South Carolina.
She never gave up on Andrea. It took several more phone calls, multiple visits to jail where Andrea was held 14 times on prostitution and drug charges, and two years of building a relationship before Andrea was ready to accept Messick’s offer to help.
Today, Andrea is one of five women living and healing in Jasmine Road. It’s a home in Greenville that offers a two-year program on recovery from trauma and addiction, and provides tools for a healthy future.
In the past five years, Messick has called phone numbers listed in online sex ads between 50 and 100 times. In the past year alone, she has visited at least 300 women in jail. That’s how she identifies and connects with victims of sex trafficking.
But in the end, she knows she cannot save anyone. It’s more about building relationships, taking them by the hand and showing them the way out, she said. Otherwise, they will go right back to the lifestyle.
“There’s a fine line between me and those women,” she said. “I could easily be in the same boat had I not received the resources I needed to help me heal.”
‘A place where God doesn’t exist’
Dirt footpaths connect cheap hotels to gas stations and restaurants, where potential customers, or “dates,” sometimes gather. This is The District, a roughly 2-square-mile area off Augusta Road near Interstate 85 in Greenville.
It’s a circuit many women walk day and night, stopping only for the next customer or the next hit of heroin or crack — the two drugs of choice for many in this lifestyle because of their numbing effects.
“The drugs went hand-in-hand,” Andrea said. “You need the drugs to do the date, but you need the date to get the drugs. It’s just a really vicious cycle.”
Most traffickers avoid this area, putting their victims in high-end hotels to cater to those who are most likely to buy sex — 30 to 50-year-old white males with a family, college degree and disposable income, said Jonathan Bastoni, a human trafficking investigator with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.
Even still, Messick views The District as ground zero for women who need the most help. They’re the women who most people have given up on, and the type of victims who would never cooperate with a criminal investigation, she said.
“I’ve never been to a place where people walk for three days in a row without sleep. These people walk all day and work all night,” Messick said. “It’s a place where God doesn’t exist.”
This is where Messick’s advocacy first began. She started by making trips to The District, each time bringing along about 20 hotdogs, a variety pack of Lays potato chips and bottles of Pepsi, Sprite and water to pass out to people she saw walking around.
She quickly learned, though, that giving food to people in The District was not the solution.
“Those were just tools for us to get near these women and hear their stories,” Messick said.
Through Emerson’s Rest, as well as her certification to work with victims of trauma, Messick obtained professional visitation privileges from the Greenville County Detention Center, she said.
“That gave me an audience with them where they’re away from their dope dealers, away from their traffickers and they were sober,” she said.
It allowed her to get to the bottom of how they wound up on the streets.
“From doing all that, I learned it was multiple women with one story,” she said. “And that story is childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and a lot of other bad things, which made them vulnerable to being picked up by traffickers or people who would want to use them.”
That’s when her work really picked up momentum. It gave her unfettered access that allowed her to build relationships these women so desperately needed.
And it gave her the opportunity to meet a young woman named Rose, who at the time was sitting in jail on drug charges at 19 years old. Rose, which is not her real name, first smoked meth at 13, and her drug addiction began the following year, she told reporters in a recent interview.
She had been a victim of sex trafficking for several years by the time Messick first visited her in jail. And now she serves as a reminder that Messick can only do so much.
“I love her like a daughter,” she said of Rose. “To see what she threw away made it really, really difficult for me.”
‘I really just didn’t care anymore’
Rose spent her 17th birthday locked in a basement in Philadelphia. For 12 days, she endured all kinds of abuse.
Men paid cash for the opportunity to rape her, but she doesn’t remember how many. They took videos of her, put out cigarettes on her nude body and laughed as she screamed and cried.
The story of how Rose wound up 600 miles away from her home in Greer involves love and betrayal, sex and drugs — and more money than she had ever seen in her life.
Rose, who is now 21, said her very first memory starts at 4 years old, when she held her battered mother in a pool of her own blood as she lay passed out on the floor. Her father had just smashed her mother’s head into the wall and left.
With a lifetime of trauma, Rose turned to drugs. She quit school at 15 and ran away from home. A year later, she took a trip to Philadelphia with some friends, but was left behind after an argument.
Stranded, addicted to heroin and nowhere else to go, she decided to stay a few nights with a man she met in the city. She always had trouble with men, she admits.
He was in his 40s and seemed nice enough, she said. Plus, he was a drug dealer who could supply any kind of fix she needed. He dealt only in cash and carried it in stacks, she said.
“Never in my life have I seen that much money,” she said.
Drugs and cash were flowing. Beautiful women were always around. His life was a constant party. She was a naïve 16-year-old girl and, in a way, it felt glamorous, she said.
But then she was introduced to crack. And after about a week, she began to see the dark side of this lifestyle — dope-sick women piled up on the floor outside this man’s door, waiting for their next hit of heroin. The drug was the only thing standing between them and their ability to get up and start earning back the money they owed him.
She knew if she tried to leave, the consequences would be severe. But she tried anyway, and with nowhere to go, she didn’t get far. The man paid a few crack addicts to track her down and bring her back, she said.
He beat and raped her, she said. He threw her into the basement and locked the door, and charged other men to go down and rape her as well.
She was only able to escape when one of her captors passed out on heroin and left a cellphone nearby, she said. She quickly grabbed it and punched in her grandmother’s phone number. Police arrived soon after and freed Rose from the basement. Rose’s story was verified by Messick, who spoke with an FBI agent to confirm the details.
But that was really the start of her troubles.
“After that happened,” she said, “I really just didn’t care anymore.”
‘I hope to find purpose for my life’
Rose came back home to South Carolina and fell back into the lifestyle. She was hooked on heroin, stayed in a different hotel room every night and sold her body to pay off drug dealers.
“There are so many guys who don’t want to sell drugs anymore. You run out of drugs. If you have girls, they’re not going to run out of vagina,” she said. “Every day, all day, that’s what my life became.”
That was until she was indicted on drug trafficking charges. One of her drug dealers used her as a mule, she said, forcing her to transport drugs and take the fall if caught. Facing years in prison, she was ready to accept Messick’s help.
Messick advocated for Rose in court, and a judge ordered Rose to complete the two-year program at Jasmine Road in exchange for leniency in her criminal case, Messick said.
“In my history of doing this, I have never seen someone so well treated by the criminal justice system,” Messick said. “They made special accommodations for her. They created a pathway for her to get the help she needed.”
But that still wasn’t enough.
After about a year of treatment and six months at Jasmine Road, Rose met a man in another drug recovery group. They developed a relationship, Messick said, and Rose left Jasmine Road in the middle of the night to run away with him, becoming a fugitive overnight.
About a week later, Messick received a letter from Rose in jail. She apologized for leaving. She feared what her future held. And she told Messick she loved her.
Messick knows there’s only so much she can do.
“I would never try to convince someone of the right thing to do,” she said. “I just try to understand the pain they have been through and give them options. It’s so important that you give these women options because they’ve never had any choices — everyone has made choices for them.”
Five other women have chosen to start over at Jasmine Road. Therapy has given them a new perspective on the trauma they’ve endured. Counseling has given them a better understanding of how drugs played a role in that trauma. Even the little things, such as yoga, are giving them a new lease on life.
Some women of Jasmine Road hope to graduate and begin working as staff members.
“I’m going back to school for human services. I want to help people who are like me,” Andrea said. “I hope to find purpose for my life. To find a career that I love and is meaningful. Something that, when I get home at night, I’m glad that I did.”
The goal is to open four more houses like Jasmine road in the next four years. And Messick won’t give up.
“It’s really important for me to bring this message to women that, ‘I’m no different than you, and together we can continue on this journey and heal together,’” she said. “Every time they heal, I heal a little bit more.”
About Jasmine Road
Funded by community donations and grants from donors, Jasmine Road is a two-year residential program in Greenville for adult women who have survived sex trafficking. Up to five survivors live in a three bedroom/two bathroom house in a safe location with a protected address. There, the women focus on healing without distractions, knowing they will be safe. The goal is to open four more houses, serving 25 women, by 2022.
The program works in three phases:
- Phase one covers the first six months and focuses on trauma therapy, drug and alcohol recovery groups and grief counseling.
- Phase two covers the second six months and comes with more privileges. Women are allowed cellphones and overnight passes. They can start looking for jobs and attend school. This gives them more structure.
- Phase three covers the final year of the program. This time is spent developing financial literacy and job skills, gaining independence and planning for the future.