CHARLESTON, SC (WCBD) — The Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force recently began operations in the Lowcountry. The members are working to help victims escape and regain control of their lives.
Lindsey Hass knows how difficult the process is.
She was 21, fresh out of an abusive relationship, and living on her own, when she met Daniel Burton.
“I talked to him for a week before I agreed to go on a date with him,” said Hass.
“He was supposed to take me out on a date, and it definitely did not turn out a date,” she said.
That date turned into a year-long trap in the sex trade.
“He put us in hotel rooms … and we’d take calls. They’d come to us or we’d go to them,” Hass said.
“I tried to escape once, and he found out, and it was bad repercussions,” she said.
Hass said though they met in Maryland, they frequented Charleston.
“Charleston was his favorite,” she said.
The tourism, colleges, and overall population made it an easy spot to stop.
“It was usually near Ashley Phosphate, but it was all over Charleston,” she said.
In 2012, she and Burton were both arrested in Charleston. That’s when detectives worked with her to find help through the group Doors to Freedom.
“She helped me readjust to real life,” Hass said.
Unfortunately though, there are many involved in sex trafficking that don’t have the support that Hass was able to find.
That’s where Jack Cohoon and his team of lawyers come in.
“When they get out of human trafficking, they often have a lot of legal loose ends in their lives,” Cohoon said.
South Carolina Legal Services has helped many human trafficking victims clean up their record.
“They catch charges for prostitution. They have to take the fall for the trafficking perpetrators. So when they’re trying to get jobs, trying to be successful, trying to get housing, everyone sees these old offenses,” Cohoon said.
The legal team works to get those charges expunged.
Just recently, the group received a grant to allow them to hire one attorney to focus solely on those cases.
Right now, there are more than 70 open criminal cases for trafficking across the South Carolina, and each one of has at least one victim.
“Just open your eyes and understand it’s real,” said Hass.
The Warning Signs
The Dee Norton Children’s Advocacy Center has helped hundreds of children in abusive situations.
Now, the group is also focusing on human trafficking among children and teens.
The professionals at the center say more people are starting to recognize the presence of human trafficking in Charleston, so it’s important for parents to recognize the warning signs and risk factors.
Rachel Garrett is the Director of Community Programs at the Dee Norton Children’s Advocacy Center. She works with local and state leaders to address the human trafficking issue in South Carolina. She also works to train adults in recognizing the problem.
Garrett says vulnerability in children and adolescents tends to be the primary risk factor.
“The large majority of kids that are confirmed victims of sex trafficking have a history of child welfare in the past, so they may have a history of physical or sexual abuse,” said Garrett.
She says the victims are often runaways or “throw away youth”.
“Those are the ones that maybe they’ve had some troubles in the past … and the parents are just done with them. They may not be homeless, but the adults in their life tend to just wash their hands of them. Those especially tend to be incredibly vulnerable,” Garrett said.
Parents play a large role in putting a stop to human trafficking. Professionals ask that parents take an interest in their children’s lives.
“If your child or teen has an older boyfriend or girlfriend, pay attention to that. If they are gone for long spurts of time, pay attention to that. If they’re connecting with people in real life that they’ve met over the internet, pay attention to that,” Garrett said.
“There’s vulnerability in adolescents in general,” Garrett continued. “I think there’s a lot of preventative things parents can do in terms of having conversations with their kids about internet safety about protecting themselves and being aware of what’s out there,” she said.