Human Trafficking task force breaks down the crime, pushes for education

At its first meeting of the year, the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force puts a major focus on education.
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 3:59 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 10, 2023 at 9:17 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - At its first meeting of the year, the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force puts a major focus on education. Leaders say they believe it’s hard to track the problem statistically because cases are likely underreported.

Last year, Attorney General Alan Wilson reported that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division supported 416 victims in 440 cases of trafficking. Charleston County was the second highest in the state with 14 cases.

Tri-County leaders think many people still don’t know what human trafficking is, so it isn’t reported as often as it happens.

Lauren Knapp and Brooke Burris, Co-Chair of the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force, say trafficking is not like what people might imagine in a kidnapping movie. In fact, it’s often much less dramatic, doesn’t require movement across state or even city lines, and perpetrators are most often people the victim knows. They hope education will lead to more reporting and prosecution.

Click here to read the 2022 annual report from the state on human trafficking.

“Cases are now making it to court and the attorneys are having to spend a lot of time in trial to explain to jurors what human trafficking is and is not rather than focusing on the case and the crime itself,” Knapp says.

The phrase ‘human trafficking’ evokes images of girls bound at the wrists with duct tape over their mouths, or large groups of workers tossed in the back of vans. Survivors, like Kat Wehunt, who chairs the Survivor Advisory Subcommittee, say that’s not usually accurate.

“We don’t identify with that so we think we must not be a victim in human trafficking,” Wehunt explains.

In reality, it can be any form of coercion where a perpetrator makes a victim perform work or sex acts because of a threat. Wehunt says both her parents were in law enforcement when she was trafficked and she didn’t realize her abuse was trafficking until later in her recovery.

“It’s abuse of the law, that’s the threshold of trafficking,” Burris says.

Traffickers can use physical force against victims, but more often it is psychological manipulation. Perpetrators use threats to a loved one, threats to release explicit pictures, and threats to report the victims to parole officers, the Department of Social Services, or other agencies to force them into work or sex.

Wehunt says in all her years working with other victims, she has only once heard someone identify themselves as experiencing human trafficking.

“We’re often the first ones telling them, hey what you experienced was human trafficking,” she explains.

Last year, the state saw the first jury trial involving human trafficking of a minor. The defendant was sentenced to life in prison. Advocates also want people to understand that no one under the age of 18 can consent to sex work, in any form, no matter what the child may say. The responsibility is on the adult in the relationship to not engage with a minor and if they do, it’s trafficking.

The task force is working to debunk common myths like victims will self-identify, trafficking only happens to women, trafficking requires moving, and most importantly trafficking doesn’t happen here.

“Saying that it’s not here is just putting your head in the sand. So we want it to really enhance and educate people to let them know that it is here. And it may be happening in your neighborhood,” Knapp says.

Click here to learn more about the Tri-County Task Force’s work.