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Prison can be ‘saving grace’ – or further trauma – for victims of human trafficking

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Human Trafficking in South Carolina

It’s happening in more ways and more places than most realize.

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A 16-year-old girl decided to meet a man she encountered online. Her mother called the police when she never returned home, according to court records and news reports from 2016.

Beaten and held against her will, the girl was forced to have sex with strangers in various motel rooms for money throughout Richland County for nearly two weeks.

That’s when investigators with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department found a post on Backpage.com advertising the girl for sex. They set up a prostitution sting with the man they would later find out was benefiting from her sex acts, 22-year-old Daytron Hoefer, according to interviews and reports.

But the nightmare didn’t end after the teen described to investigators what she had been through. She was arrested for prostitution and taken to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, according to a state prosecutor.

The re-victimization of human trafficking victims is happening in South Carolina. Whether it comes in criminal charges or the perception of complicity, survivors of all ages have been forced to defend their trauma in the justice system and the court of public opinion.

South Carolina has come a long way. Changes to state law, long-term housing and a statewide education campaign have all helped curb the trend of locking up victims.

Daytron Hoefor Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center

Law enforcement and victims’ advocates say more must be done to keep survivors protected.

“We need somewhere to bring people in and keep them safe, a place where someone can have their needs assessed and be connected to the services that best fit their circumstance,” said Jen Thompson, executive director of Lighthouse for Life, a nonprofit that hopes to open a long-term residential program in Richland County this summer for survivors between 12 and 21 years old.

Sex trafficking is often misidentified as prostitution. Children can’t consent to prostitution, according to state law, and anyone who benefits from a juvenile having sex could be arrested for sex trafficking.

For adults, the distinction between prostitution and trafficking is less clear. When a person uses force, fraud or coercion to get another person to engage in prostitution, it’s sex trafficking.

As of now, trafficking data is scarce and incomplete. But South Carolina experienced a nearly 60 percent increase in reported cases of sex trafficking from 2016 to 2017, according to an annual report produced by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

The growing problem is pushing law enforcement and state agencies to rethink how they approach survivors, and where to take them when they’ve been rescued.

In Hoefer’s case, investigators quickly realized a mistake had been made, officials said. They erased the charge on the teenager’s record and put the girl in counseling to begin healing, according to interviews and news reports. A recent law change has given police more tools to prevent putting children in jail cells.

But for many adults, salvation comes with a prison sentence, said Alexis Scurry, who works with child victims of human trafficking in Richland County. Traffickers can’t reach their victims behind bars.

“You wouldn’t expect prison to be somebody’s saving grace, but for these ladies, it is,” she said.

‘A very big problem’

Several years ago, Richland County deputies found a teenage runaway who had admitted to having sex with older men for money. But she believed the man she answered to was her boyfriend, said Capt. Heidi Jackson, an investigator with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

The man was “so dangerous and so violent,” but without evidence that he profited from the teenage girl’s sex acts, there was nothing Jackson could do, she said.

“She told me, anywhere we put her she was going to run away again. For her safety, I elected to arrest her,” Jackson said. “At that time, I didn’t have any other way to keep her safe. But now we do.”

Last year, lawmakers expanded the definition of child abuse and neglect to include suspected victims of sex trafficking. Now, police can take a child into emergency protective custody and contact the S.C. Department of Social Services if there is suspicion of trafficking.

But the new law is only shifting the burden.

Social workers scramble to get children off the streets and into a foster home for temporary placement because too few beds are available, said Gwynne Goodlett, program manager of child health and well-being with Social Services.

Social Services has already identified more than 30 children in South Carolina as potential victims of sex trafficking, Goodlett said. And Juvenile Justice has identified 20 potential victims in custody, said Kathryn Moorehead, head of the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force.

The number of children now coming into Social Services is outpacing the number of beds available to keep them safe.

“I think we’re going to see a very big problem in the state of South Carolina,” Moorehead said.

On the other hand, adults who are rescued from the streets are taken to homeless or domestic violence shelters. But shelters and foster homes don’t offer the protections that victims need.

“The reason this is such a problem is that victims of human trafficking are dealing with complex and often multiple traumas,” said Jonathan Bastoni, a human trafficking investigator with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.

Rape, domestic violence, physical abuse and childhood sexual abuse are just some of their experiences, he said. In addition, some are feeling the symptoms of withdrawal from crack or heroin, which is often used by traffickers as a tool for compliance.

“These can be some of the most challenging victims to deal with and having a place with staff that is trained in trauma-informed care, specifically for human trafficking, is important,” Bastoni said.

The other issue is protection. Nothing stops a trafficker from following victims to a homeless shelter or foster home, said Scurry, the victims’ advocate.

“They could be right out there to pick them up and put them right back on the street,” she said.

Heather Cook met her trafficker when she was 14 years old after they promised her love and safety. Cook spent the next 17 years on the street. Cook was sent to prison at 31 years old for a probation violation which which allowed her to escape her trafficker and begin a new life. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

‘Escape from the lifestyle’

For some people, the road to salvation goes through prison.

Heather Cook was trapped for nearly two decades. Her trafficker ordered her to bring home a certain amount of money each day — her quota — and to not return until it was met. She sold her body, she said. She stole money. She forged documents. And it landed her in trouble with the law.

Cook, now 42, was arrested 15 times while she was trafficked throughout Richland and Lexington counties, she said. She was on probation for forgery, but failed to report to her probation officer and was sent back to prison for two years.

“The South Carolina Department of Corrections was my avenue of escape from the lifestyle,” she said, adding had it not been for her prison sentence, she could still be out on the streets.

Since then, Cook has become a voice for other victims. She wrote a book about her journey, and with the help of lawyers, managed to have 20 of the 37 criminal charges expunged from her record. She hopes erasing that history will open doors to future job opportunities.

“Those charges follow you for the rest of your life,” she said. “And you would’ve never been there had it not been for what was done to you.”

Cook isn’t alone. Diana Idiaghe, a legal fellow with Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps, is working to clear legal hurdles for eight clients, most of whom were arrested for crimes they committed while they were victimized. Legal Assistance for Survivors of Trafficking is a network of attorneys that offers the same opportunities.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, has sponsored legislation that would give the state tools to better combat this problem.

“The more we learn about it, the more we learn we may need to tweak the statutes to adjust to what’s really happening,” he said.

One bill Hutto is pushing would clarify the crime against prostitution, establishing protections for victims of sex trafficking who are arrested.

And after a child was arrested for prostitution last year, another bill aims to clarify that a person under 18 years old cannot be charged with prostitution, Hutto said. It also provides protection for minors charged with other crimes while they were victimized.

“We’re trying to give (survivors) an avenue to escape their bad situation without putting them in jail,” Hutto said.

‘Stop and do some digging’

There’s one big reason human trafficking cases have spiked in the state: Officials are now looking for it.

Following 2012 passage of South Carolina’s law that criminalized human trafficking, the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force was formed. Now, more than 300 members, including police, solicitors and members of state agencies and nonprofits, are working together to combat human trafficking.

Since 2012, the task force has embarked on a statewide education campaign with various agencies that may encounter victims — Social Services, Juvenile Justice, medical professionals and law enforcement.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson File photo

“Now that they’re being trained, they’re asking a few additional questions. They’re seeing things they weren’t looking for before. They don’t have a defendant in a prostitution sting. They have a victim in a human trafficking ring,” said S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who serves as chairman of the task force. “A lot of times a victim is not going to volunteer this information. There are even times the victim doesn’t know they are a victim.”

The judiciary has taken notice. Family and Circuit Court judges are involved with seminars around the state about how to spot the signs.

“So many people have in their mind that sex trafficking involves kids that come over from Romania or somewhere like that,” Horry County Family Court Judge Melissa Buckhannon said. “But they’re kids right here in our school systems. They’re kids right down the street.”

Tricia Ravenhorst, general counsel with the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, also travels around the state to conduct training with law enforcement on how to approach prostitution cases differently.

She recalls one law enforcement officer asking, “Are you telling us that all prostitutes are trafficking victims?”

“No, but stop and do some digging. What are the circumstances? How did you wind up here on the streets? Are you able to leave?” Ravenhorst said. “Watching the light bulb turn on was fascinating.”

Gavin McIntyre

‘Like they were getting Pablo Escobar’

Samantha, 37, became a sex trafficking victim after she was introduced to crack cocaine in Greenville.

“Crack is one of those drugs where it doesn’t matter how much you have. It’s going to run out and it’s going to run out quick,” Samantha said. The State agreed to not use her real name in keeping with its policy of not naming victims of sexual assault.

She began incurring debts with a drug dealer, who quickly offered a solution. Sell sex and use that money to pay down the debt. And as long as money kept coming in, the dealer kept giving her crack.

“It’s a really dirty game. He was giving me all this credit. I remember times it was $700, $800 and one time is was $1,300. He had a really good system. I stayed in debt,” she said. “I saw what happened to other people. I saw girls get their a**** beat because they owed. I realized I have got to pay this money back.”

In the throes of addiction and trapped in this endless cycle, Samantha often found herself doing things for money she wouldn’t normally do. And it landed her in trouble with the law. In a two-year period, Samantha was arrested 22 times — all of it stemming from prostitution and drugs.

But the prostitution stings traumatized her far more than anything she ever experienced on the streets, she said.

“I couldn’t believe the manpower that was used to give a $230 misdemeanor ticket and how much joy (police) had … like they were getting Pablo Escobar,” Samantha said, adding that one deputy would cackle like the Joker from Batman any time he arrested a girl.

Members of law enforcement frequently called her a “crack whore,” she said, and made her feel shame. But no one stopped to ask how she wound up in that position, until she met Beth Messick, executive director of Jasmine Road.

A painting by a local artist hangs in the entryway of Jasmine Road, a home for human trafficking survivors. Ashlen Renner arenner@thestate.com

Journey to Recovery

Today, Samantha is one of five women living and healing in Jasmine Road, a residential community in Greenville for adult female survivors of sex trafficking. The first of its kind in the state, the two-year restoration program addresses recovery from trauma and addiction.

She no longer worries about her next high or where she will lay her head at night. She has time to focus on herself and getting back on her feet.

“I spent so much time numb, that it’s just nice to just enjoy my feelings,” Samantha said. “Even the ones I don’t really like, it’s still awesome that I have them. I walked around for years and the only thing I felt was numb or angry.”

Doors to Freedom offers a very similar restoration program in Charleston, but with a focus on victims between the ages of 12 and 21. It opened a house in April 2018 with around-the-clock care for up to 10 children and young adults.

It currently holds six children between 14 and 17 years old. Some are in custody of Social Services or Juvenile Justice for running away. Others have no family and were lured into the lifestyle, said Sharon Rikard, executive director of Doors to Freedom.

Only one location in the state offers temporary housing for victims recovered from the streets — Lily Pad Haven in Rock Hill. But it can only hold two people and both spots are filled, said Patricia Krikorian, executive director of Lily Pad Haven.

SWITCH, a nonprofit organization in Greenville, will spend this year exploring opening an emergency shelter for victims of human trafficking in the Upstate, said Jesslyn Griffith, community engagement coordinator.

Without short-term options available, survivors continue to be at risk of re-victimization.

“It’s something that’s really needed,” Griffith said. “There are situations where victims come to us and they are in immediate danger, and they need a safe place to be for the night.”

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.