Assistant Attorney General Kinli Abee still remembers the paralyzing fear that gripped her client, a young woman, during South Carolina’s first human trafficking conviction.
Still in her 20s, the victim had been held against her will, threatened with harm to her son and forced to have sex with up to 100 men a week. She escaped with her child after three months and later provided key information about her ordeal to state prosecutors.
“She was extremely terrified of her traffickers and was even more terrified of testifying against them,” Kinli says. “She was very strong though, and working with her was truly inspiring. This conviction was huge because it showed that South Carolina was going to take a stand against modern day slavery. It allowed us to say, ‘This won’t be tolerated in our state,’ and it took the problem of human trafficking out of the hypothetical and made it real.”
Human trafficking has grown internationally into a $150 billion annual business, affecting every country worldwide. The United Nation’s International Labour Organization reports that nearly 21 million people are victims of human trafficking. Nearly 4.5 million of them are forced into sex jobs, according to the report.
Kinli explains that in this particular case, it started out being labeled a kidnapping. “With the persistence of some amazing investigators, we were able to solidify the human trafficking aspect of it,” she says. “The most important step was not giving up. I think as a state, we understand how serious the problem is, but that doesn’t mean we can easily identify it. It took a group of people willing to work together to make it happen.”
In South Carolina, more than 150 cases of trafficking have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center since the state passed a new law combating the crime in 2012. New statutes include higher penalties and criminal liability for business owners engaging in human trafficking. The law also created a multiagency task force, led by the Attorney General’s office, dedicated to investing and addressing the problem of human trafficking in the Palmetto State.
“One of the first initiatives the task force tried to undertake was writing the state plan to combat this issue,” says Marie Sazehn, another assistant attorney general who leads the task force and helped bring South Carolina’s first conviction. “We know we must work together and pool our resources, and we need the help of the community to end this crime.”
The state plan called for more data about human trafficking; education for first responders, medical professionals, labor, victim advocacy agencies and organizations involved in anti-trafficking efforts; the creation of a South Carolina human trafficking website or resource guide; and access to emergency shelters for both male and female victims. Other recommendations also included developing a protocol for requesting federal law enforcement assistance and providing training through the state Commission on Prosecution Coordination.
“There are always a new set of challenges that the task force has to address,” Marie says. “It’s a terrible and egregious crime for all of the agencies involved. Not only are we working on fixing the issues that we’re already seeing, we’re also working on the prevention aspect. If we’re not working on prevention, we’re just putting a band-aid on it.”
Combating Human Trafficking
Suggestive photos appear by the dozens on classified advertising websites, openly selling bodies for sex. Law enforcement officials say it’s here on these Web pages where they often find the victims of human trafficking, a wide range from all backgrounds and experiences.
“We are seeing more and more postings all the time,” says Richland County Sheriff’s Department Victims Services Unit Lt. Heidi Jackson. “They include victims from all backgrounds, from runaways to college students. The youngest we typically see in our area is about 12, all the way up to 19. But really we see it all. The public should know that anyone can fall prey to human trafficking. They should be aware and be vigilant.”
A recent case solved by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department helped bring a 16-year-old teen back to her family after she was held against her will and forced to sell her body for sex. Trafficking victims like this are often lured by “Romeo” traffickers; young men who initially act like boyfriends, befriend girls and “groom” them through trust and manipulation.
“These traffickers are master manipulators –– they know what they are doing,” Heidi says. “They are predators, often luring these girls into doing things, little steps at a time. Typically it’s an older guy, around 20, who grooms her. He buys things for her and gets her hair or nails done. It starts out like a relationship, then turns into him asking her to do things. Once he gets his foot in the door, he can use threats of telling or showing pictures. All sorts of things.”
Healthcare workers like Shellie Keisler, an RN with the Regional Forensic Program at Palmetto Health Richland, have seen the effects of manipulation firsthand. “Most of the patients who we see are stoic. They are conditioned into thinking that what is being done to them is completely normal and isn’t wrong,” says Shellie. “Patients look at their traffickers as someone who has rescued them, and they become totally dependent on them.”
In 2015, healthcare providers reported working with 155 victims of human trafficking, according to the data collected by the state task force. The emergency room is often the only interaction victims have with any medical professional.
“When we see these patients, they often have numerous complaints, including physical and emotional,” Shellie says. “We have to look at them as a whole, keeping in mind that they may not follow up with a medical professional. That is why it is so important that we address their healthcare concerns while they are here.”
The underground nature of the crime and range of profiles for victims and traffickers can make human trafficking hard to identify, experts say.
“The only common thread for traffickers is their desire for power and money,” Kinli says. “For victims, there are no common characteristics –– anyone can fall prey to this crime. We see a lot of juvenile runaways, but it really spreads across the board.”
Law enforcement and prosecutors have increased their training to better identify human trafficking, and they urge the public to learn warning signs too.
Trafficking victims often:
• Are escorted whenever they go out, whether to work, to get their nails done, etc.
• Aren’t allowed to be alone
• Are in the company of older men
• Will not make eye contact
• Display signs of physical abuse such as bruises, black eyes, burns, cuts or scars
Some signs for parents of potential victims to watch for:
• A sudden change in dress, including shift to expensive or revealing clothing
• A sudden change in friends
• Skipping school and/or sudden changes in grades and interest in school activities
• Disappearing for long periods of time
• A teenager being secretive about his/her whereabouts
For survivors of human trafficking, organizations like LightHouse for Life, offer services to initiate “restoration.”
“We hope to restore victims of minor domestic human trafficking to physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness,” says Lisa Kejr with LightHouse for Life. “Our main goal is to open a safe house in South Carolina for rescue victims. In the meantime, we’re big on raising awareness and letting the community know how big and prevalent human trafficking is here in Columbia … here in South Carolina.”
Advocates and law enforcement officials are also encouraged by legislation that could help to combat the crime further.
“Right now, there’s a bill in the Senate asking for stronger laws targeting the buyers of sex. If this law passes, we’ll have some of the best laws in the country,” Heidi says. “We already have the 2012 law, and we’re also seeing judges set the bonds high for accused traffickers. So, we’re happy with the direction our government is going with this. We are sending the message that we will go after these traffickers.”
A “Living Nightmare”
For Megan Madsen, the fight against human trafficking is a personal one, and one she is passionate about sharing in hopes of helping other young girls. After a whirlwind love affair and marriage ending in divorce, the then 21-year-old found herself out of money, desperate and looking for work in San Diego.
She answered an ad for a job on craigslist and completed a quick phone interview before heading out for what she was told was an in-person interview.
“The woman offered to pick my roommate and me up because I didn’t have a car. We got to this apartment that she told us was an office. That’s when everything changed,” says Megan. “This man came out of the back room and told us what was really going on. Things happened really fast after that. We were separated. I was taken to this house, dressed in lingerie and the trafficker took pictures of me. We went back to the apartment, he posted the pictures on craigslist under adult services, and I was sold for sex the same day.”
Megan was trafficked in 2008, working in a place that advertised erotic massages but offering sex for money.
“It was a living nightmare. I just kept thinking this isn’t happening. This isn’t real,” she says. “I just remember wondering what would happen if I didn’t do what they said. The trafficker had a gun the whole time tucked into the back of his pants. I did what I was told and waited for an opportunity.”
Her chance to escape came when a “client” offered to help. Bloodied by an assault with another sex worker trying to stop her escape and running from the trafficker following her, Megan finally reached a nearby gas station and called police.
“Nothing happened until another girl escaped and came forward. That’s when I was told that charges were being brought against them,” she says. “Eventually, I got therapy to deal with what happened to me and started going to church. I’ve had to deal with the fact that this happened, the embarrassment of what I was forced to do and feeling like I should have known better or trusted the hairs on the back of my neck. I’m still trying to heal and just taking it day by day.”
Now back in her home state of South Carolina, it’s been several years since Megan escaped a life of being sold for sex. Now a 29-year-old mother and human trafficking survivor, she urges others to spread the word and help combat the crime.
“It can happen to anyone,” she says. “People hear about it happening in their state, in their city, but they don’t want to believe it can happen in their own home. It happened to me. Thank God I found a way out.”
For every victim who finds a way out, dozens more are victimized each day. Seeing the worst cases — siblings selling younger brothers or sisters and mothers looking the other way — Heidi hopes human trafficking is a crime South Carolina can eliminate.
“I think it’s a imperative goal,” she says. “If we aggressively attack this problem, we can push it out and make this a place where traffickers don’t want to do business.”