Human trafficking is a big problem in the Grand Strand where victims as young as 4 years old have reported being forced into sexual servitude, but leaders across the state are “deputizing” citizens to help them fight it.
Four Horry County residents were arrested and charged with sexual exploitation in March after a 4-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy said they were forced to have sex with their siblings and other adults.
Another case emerged a month later when a woman told North Myrtle Beach police she was sexually and physically assaulted for months by a man who operates a Mexican store where she was allegedly being held in a back room.
Both cases are still pending in court, but they aren’t the only signs of trafficking local law enforcement officers have seen.
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Labor trafficking is also a huge problem.
International guests, who come here to work for a season, can find themselves trapped in a life of slavery when their passports are held at ransom, according to speakers at a human trafficking forum in North Myrtle Beach on Wednesday.
And although prosecuting the cases can be very challenging, attempts are being made to stamp out an evil that several forum attendees cringed at during the event hosted by the North Myrtle Beach Woman’s Club.
Victoria was five years old when her grandfather pimped her out to the landlord to help cover their rising rent, said Robyn Causey, a licensed master social worker who teaches at Horry-Georgetown Technical College.
Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘You know what? I want to be a prostitute.’
Carrie Fisher-Sherard, Assistant United States Attorney in the district of South Carolina
Causey is considered a national expert in human trafficking, domestic violence, corrections and vulnerable youth. The Horry County native has been working with victims, perpetrators and families for more than 20 years.
“There are more human slaves in the world than at any other time in history,” Causey said. “Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking.”
State Attorney General Alan Wilson called the global human trafficking scourge a “$150 billion a year criminal enterprise,” second only to drug trafficking.
Children have become a big target.
The average age of entry into sex trafficking is 12-14 years old, but some are as young as 6, Causey said, and 90 percent of sexually exploited youth are under the control of a pimp.
“Those young girls go for a lot of money,” Causey told the crowd inside the Barefoot Resort Conference Center.
Most trafficking victims report being sexually abused as children, Causey said. “I’ve had young girls tell me, ‘Look, if Daddy was gonna take it, I might as well have sold it. I ain’t going to give it away for free.’”
The stories from victims and perpetrators alike are harrowing, and although different, they have a common theme. The victims never asked to be exploited, but whether it was coercion from a boyfriend they couldn’t give up or threats from a man they couldn’t escape, exploitation became their way of life.
“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘You know what? I want to be a prostitute. I want to be a victim of sex trafficking or I want to be a victim of labor trafficking,” said Carrie Fisher-Sherard, an assistant United States attorney in the district of South Carolina. “They are defrauded into this.”
And to perpetrators? Trafficking is business.
While she worked at the Covenant House shelter in New York City, Causey said she came across the case of a young man, who was “busted because he trafficked some girls to Myrtle Beach during Bike Week.”
She recounted his story of how he got into “the life” working for a gang that supplied him with the money he needed for new clothes and shoes, but as the years went on, his little chores of collecting women’s names grew into managing prostitutes.
There are several indicators that clue authorities into cases of labor trafficking.
“They work excessively long and unusual hours,” Causey said. “They get paid very little. They have unexplained work injuries. They could be working or living in conditions where there’s extreme security such as bars on the windows, tinted windows, security cameras.”
There are more human slaves in the world than at any other time in history.
Robyn Causey, licensed master social worker
And the signs of possible sex trafficking show up when girls under the age of 18 are found working the streets.
They will likely have an interest in older men, expensive jewelry or clothing, Causey said.
They may use language like “the life” which refers to a life of trafficking or exploitation and they may refer to their pimp as their “daddy,” she added. They will often have one or more sexually transmitted diseases; if pregnant, they may not know who the father is and they may also have signs of branding or tattoos, she said.
But victims aren’t always so easy to spot and chances are they will not say they are victims.
“Some trafficked persons think that they’re agreeing to getting involved in something to make their life better. They don’t even know they’re victims,” Causey said. “They usually find themselves deceived, coerced or forced into an exploitive situation. … The trafficker does a wonderful job of convincing them that the law enforcement officials will punish them.”
But prosecuting cases of trafficking is littered with challenges.
“If we do not have a victim to put on the stand, we do not have a case,” Fisher-Sherard said. But even when victims are willing to talk, they come with past problems like criminal records, substance abuse, a history of being uncooperative with police, immigration issues and continued contact with their trafficker.
“Labor trafficking can be significantly harder to prove because, unlike sex trafficking, the underlying work is legal,” Fisher-Sherard said.
But speakers say it’s worth the fight and it will take several partners joining hands to combat it effectively.
“If you’re attacking it and people are reading about arrests being made for prostitution at strip clubs and massage parlors … you drive the demand down because people don’t want to get caught doing it,” Wilson said. “If the lights are left off, the cockroaches come out. You flip a light on in the room, what do the cockroaches do? They scatter to … the shadows. They look for darkness.
“Our job is to first cut the lights on and leave the lights on so these thugs and these people who are participating in this activity can’t operate freely in the cover of night,” he said. “And then what I want to do is … I want to stomp every one of them to death. I want to get them off the streets. I want to get them in prison.”
Fisher-Sherard noted ways to help: educate your friends and if you see something, say something; report suspicions to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which can be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-888-3737-888.