Combating human trafficking
Published on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020
As of Dec. 15, 2019, there were 68 human trafficking cases pending the South Carolina State Courts.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. It is a crime that is well-known at a national level, but it is equally, if not more, unsettling to know it is happening at a local level.
However, Berkeley County School District is among multiple members and agencies that are a part of a local and state-wide initiative to raise awareness on human trafficking, and to show schools and residents what they can do to combat it as well.
What is human trafficking?
South Carolina has partnered with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in promoting the Blue Campaign, a national public awareness campaign for indicators of human trafficking. The campaign defines two types of human trafficking: there is sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act is under the age of 18. There is also the recruitment, harboring, transportation provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.
Elaine Swain, coordinator of at-risk programs for the Berkeley County School District, represents the district on the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task force. All school districts in the tri-county serve on the force. Regional task forces make up the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force.
“We try to identify ways to combat and end trafficking, especially for our students,” Swain said.
Agencies like the Department of Social Services, members of law enforcement and agencies that aid human trafficking victims are also part of the task force. Swain said one of the things the force is working on is an assessment tool that will identify students – or really anybody – that might be a victim of human trafficking.
Brooke Burris, chair of the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force, connected with the school district after being tasked by the Attorney General’s office to combat human trafficking in the tri-county area.
Laws have changed so that human trafficking is now a part of the abuse/neglect law for children, and Burris wanted districts to be aware of the change so schools, required to be mandated reporters, could be trained in how to look for signs and symptoms of a student who may be trafficked.
Swain has had the human trafficking task force speak with high school counselors, principals and district social workers – “key personnel that could...turnkey the information out to their schools,” she said.
It is hard to gather data on just how common trafficking is on a local and state level.
Burris said in 2018, Attorney General Alan Wilson came out with an annual report on human trafficking that revealed Charleston County was the second-most prevalent county in the state in terms of human trafficking. A later report showed Charleston and Dorchester counties were among the top five counties in prevalence.
Burris said trafficking is probably more common than people may think; the number of victims identified in the state has increased 350 percent just in the last year. Wilson unveiled the annual trafficking report earlier this month.
The Dorchester Children’s Center and the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center are spearheading the effort to raise awareness locally. Both centers’ websites offer resources for training to identify abuse.
Swain said she did know of a confirmed case that has happened within the district; social workers have made referrals to Dorchester Children’s Center to intervene on incidents that have occurred, but Swain does not know the outcome of those situations.
However, now that they are trained, school counselors are able to identify possible situations.
Multiple news media outlets have reported Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force to receive training on identifying the signs of trafficking.
“We’re all on the same team, working together to try to identify better ways to get these victims to come forward,” Swain said.
The South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force’s website states that data is scarce at both the national and state level, “due in large part to the underground nature of the crime” (visit the task force website).
The task force meets quarterly. The next regional meeting is Feb. 28. The tri-county task force most recently held a community awareness training on Jan. 25 at the Women’s Missionary Society in Summerville.
“I just think we have to be a little bit more vigilant in asking questions and talking about the cases as they come up that make us feel like there’s a concern,” Swain said. “So instead of just…staying quiet, we need to talk about the (potential) cases more and make sure that these kids are kept safe, and we need to be more aware of the potential of people who are going to do our students harm.
“The more education we put out there about what it is, the more…parents, adults (and) students know they’re safe,” Swain said.
The task force was at the OneBerkeley event earlier this school year to pass out information regarding human trafficking. Principals were involved in a presentation earlier this year to receive information as well.
“We are trying to do our best to make sure people are aware of what it (trafficking) is,” Swain said.
Some things to consider if suspecting a person of being trafficked is their behavior: maybe the individual is a runaway, shows signs of trauma, deals with substance abuse, double checks with someone for permission or posts provocative social media posts. A person might have a lot of unsaved numbers on their cell phone or hidden apps, or might carry a secret phone – or more than one phone.
Anybody who suspects a person of being a victim of human trafficking can should contact DSS and their local law enforcement agency and ask for the agency’s human trafficking point of contact. The DSS hotline for abuse/neglect in Berkeley County is 843-719-1050 (after hours: 843-761-8044). In addition, a person can call/text/e-mail the national human trafficking hotline – call: 888-3737-888; text: BEFREE (233 733); e-mail: email@example.com.