It’s more common than most realize. A “Romeo” begins a relationship with a vulnerable young girl. He romances her, giving her gifts and making promises of a better life.
The young girl eventually falls in love with her partner, becoming dependent on him and ignoring red flags as the man starts grooming and, ultimately, exploiting her.
“They tend to give in and not really realize they’re being victimized,” Kathryn Moorehead, coordinator of the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force, said.
The South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in 2012 by Attorney General Alan Wilson under the Human Trafficking Act of 2012.
According to the task force’s 2019 annual report, the purpose of the task force is to collect and share trafficking data; identify criminals engaged in trafficking; review existing services and programs to meet the needs of trafficking victims; and enhance public awareness of human trafficking.
“I fought for the bill, but I didn’t have to fight that hard because I think everyone in the general assembly was 100% on board,” Wilson said. “In 2012, we were ranked one of the worst states in the country [on combating human trafficking] by Polaris.org, which is a National Human Trafficking nonprofit organization.”
Within two years of the task force being established, South Carolina was ranked as one of the best and most improved states in combating human trafficking. The state was also rated No. 1 in the country for passing human trafficking legislation.
The task force has grown significantly since its beginnings in 2012. Initially, 150 to 200 people were involved in the task force with three regional task forces and one subcommittee. Now, about 450 people are involved with eight regional task forces and 12 subcommittees.
“It has grown enormously over the last three and a half years and really is taking a multidisciplinary, multi-sector approach,” Moorehead said.
Last year, there were 678 trafficking victims, a 360% increase from the previous year, which Wilson attributes to more people being aware of how to report cases.
The task force partners with multiple associations throughout South Carolina. These include the SC Trucking Association, SC Hospital Association, SC Restaurant, Lodging Association and many government departments.
Moorehead said the task force wants to partner with higher education universities and colleges in South Carolina, but the pandemic hindered its plans.
USCPD Police Captain Eric Grabski said there have never been any human trafficking cases within the student population.
“We had some false reports of individuals on campus in the fall semester [who possibly were involved in trafficking.] We were notified by students that this group was on campus, and we responded and we found out that this was not the case,” Grabski said.
Grabski emphasizes how vital the Rave Guardian App is to students who suspect that they or their friends might be in danger of becoming involved in human trafficking.
The app has three main functions. The first function is a panic button that a student may use if they feel unsafe. The panic button works anywhere, even if you’re in a different state.
“Let’s say you’re out and about, and you see something that’s unsafe, that looks suspicious. You feel like you need some type of assistance, you can push that panic button, and it will call 911. It will also alert your trusted guardians, which the police department will be one of them, but you can also have your parents, your roommate, your best friend,” Grabski said.
The second feature is a safety timer, which guides students from one destination to another. If a student doesn’t disengage the safety timer once they reach their destination, USC police will be informed. The third feature is an anonymous texting feature to provide information to the USCPD.
According to the SC Human Trafficking Task Force report from 2019, 68 human trafficking cases are pending in South Carolina State Courts as of December 15, 2019.
Of those 68 cases, eight are in Richland County. Fourteen new defendants were charged with human trafficking in South Carolina.
Aiken, Florence, Richland, Horry, Greenville, Jasper and Lexington Counties have the most reported human trafficking cases in South Carolina.
Moorehead wants people to realize that trafficking could be easily more widespread in the state than the data shows.
“It’s really difficult to estimate how many people were trafficked because data is sort of a weak area in the human trafficking field. It is lacking to a certain degree nationally and internationally. This is something that everybody’s struggling with because of the nature of the crime. It is an underground, under the radar crime,” Moorehead said.
Moorehead warns students to be aware of their surroundings and general dangers that come with trusting strangers. She also wants students to be wary of their relationships with those close to them.
“[Traffickers] try to eliminate risk. They try to operate under the radar and are very subtle in their tactics typically. So that’s why, oftentimes, victims don’t know they’re being victimized,” Moorehead said.
Statistically speaking, most human trafficking victims know their trafficker.
“A lot of traffickers are going for high school and middle schoolers that have bad home lives, or that they feel like don’t have a strong social network that can tap into because that trafficker can then get into that young person’s life and make that young person completely dependent on them,” Wilson said.
Traffickers also get their victims addicted to drugs or maybe get them engaged in other illicit activities so that the victim views themselves as a member of a crime syndicate.
“They’re actually on the side of the trafficker because [the victim] feels like they’re going to go to jail if they get caught,” Wilson said. “It is very, very difficult to get out of the lifestyle.”
Wilson tells students to “have a very robust and strong-trusted inner circle that you’re checking in with constantly and that you’re engaging with on a constant basis.”
Grabski encourages students to come to the police department with any concerns about human trafficking.
“I know right now the relationship that the community has with the police is strained, and we’re doing everything we can as a police department to help that relationship," Grabski said. "If someone has a concern, or if someone has a question, we are an open book — we want to be able to help. I think the best way to do it is to be able to communicate.”