January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, so to bring attention to this world-wide atrocity, the Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force (LCHTTF) hosted a live community address Jan. 13 at Faith Walterboro.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson spoke to the attendees as well as 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone; Capt. Shane Roberts, Colleton County Sheriff’s Office and former LCHTTF co-chair; Sheila Roemeling, executive director of Fresh Start Healing Heart; and Kathryn Moorehead, S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force chair. The meeting was also shown virtually on Facebook.
Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose, including forced labor or sexual exploitation. Most trafficking is now done using social media to make friends or draw in victims.
“I have been a victim myself,” said Roemeling of Fresh Start Healing Heart. “It happens so quickly and catches you unaware. Before you know it, you are caught in a situation you never dreamed possible.”
Solicitor Stone agreed. “For parents, no longer do you worry so much about your kids talking to strangers on the street or at the park — the strangers are now in your house under the guise of social media. Your child can easily be contacted and coerced into trafficking. It is happening every day,” Stone said.
Alan Wilson and Stone spoke about the I-95 corridor where criminal activity abounds. It is hard to catch the numerous criminals involved in every crime imaginable. And trafficking is just one of those issues. The law has become stricter and mandated a 35-year prison sentence for those who traffick humans sexually or use them as free labor. “But I am concerned about how Covid has affected those children who are being sexually exploited and need help. Not being in school face-to-face with teachers leaves more kids at risk and not able to get help from teachers,” Wilson said.
“The public needs to help law enforcement,” said Captain Shane Roberts of the sheriff’s office. “If you see someone who looks frightened, being forced to move from place to place or work, keeps their head down when around other people, looks bruised or beaten, let us know,” said Roberts. “If it looks suspicious, call us.”
Kathryn Moorehead expressed her desire for parents to educate kids about the danger of talking to anyone on the internet. She warned residents and customers to be aware of people around them who may need help. She also said the legislature mandated that posters carrying the human trafficking hotline be posted at all rest areas and hotels. “The Task Force has ordered these posters and flyers and will have these distributed soon. But we need more help from community clubs, organizations and faith-based groups to spread the word and information about sex and labor trafficking and what to do,” said Moorehead.
The state Human Trafficking Task Force reported a 360-percent increase in the number of trafficking victims recorded in South Carolina, as well as an increase in the number of human-trafficking cases reported in the state. The cases include sex trafficking of adults and children used for pornography or prostitution.
Labor trafficking is the forced work or employment of mentally unstable people, homeless individuals and immigrants by employers in hotels, hospitality and agriculture. In lieu of these gains, the solicitor’s office has tried to bring awareness to as many people as possible and last year brought victims’ advocates and providers under a single roof — the 14th Circuit Victims Services Center in Okatie.
Victims no longer have to travel across the Lowcountry to find shelter at one stop, financial assistance at another and childcare at yet another. All of these services can be found at the Victims Services Center.
Last year, the center assisted over 650 adult victims and 100 children. But there are so many more people who need help and are not being reached.
The center is housed in the secure 14th Judicial Solicitor’s Office headquarters in Okatie. There, nonprofit partners such as Hopeful Horizons, the Child Abuse Prevention Association and Lowcountry Legal Volunteers have office space and can arrange services for victims in a single visit. The center’s aim is to help people go from victim to survivor.
The Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force educates the community about modern-day slavery. The task force is comprised of federal, state and local law enforcement professionals, healthcare providers, prosecutors’ offices, clergy, victim-services providers and others interested in creating a community free from human trafficking. The regional task force is a member of the larger state Human Trafficking Task Force, created to prevent human trafficking, to protect trafficked victims and to prosecute traffickers.
To learn more, go to https://sclchttf.wixsite.com/website.