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  • By Caroline Elswick

Local task force takes on human and sex trafficking

Editor's Note: This article was a class assignment that has been adapted for the paper.

The Human Trafficking Hotline reported almost 200 cases of human trafficking in South Carolina in 2018 alone. This total does not include the number of cases which were not reported to the police, which is estimated to far outnumber those that have been documented.

Eighty percent of trafficking victims are women and 26% are minors, according to data collected by Polaris, a company which monitors human trafficking and supports the Human Trafficking Hotline. The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office reports Horry County having the second highest percentage of human trafficking cases reported per county at 23%.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 was the first federal law to define and specifically address the issue of human trafficking and victim protection.

“Under federal law, the TVPA includes sex trafficking under the category of ‘Severe Forms of Trafficking in Persons,’ and it defines sex trafficking to occur when ‘a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age,” the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office said.

Human trafficking takes many forms, including labor trafficking. This specific form is a massive problem in Africa and Asia, and it is seeping into America.

According to the World Economic Forum, there are 40 million trafficked people today, 10 times more than there were in America in 1860.

In a 2014 high-profile case in the area, Conway restaurant owner of J&J Cafeteria, Bobby Paul Edwards, was sentenced in November 2019 to 10 years in prison and $270,000 in fines after holding an intellectually disabled black man as a slave for five years.

Edwards forced the man to work over 100 hours a week while physically beating and abusing him in addition to using racial slurs, intimidating, and forcing him into unpaid work.

This is far from the only recent case of human trafficking in Horry County.

On Jan. 6, 2019, Horry County Police Department arrested seven women accused of prostitution in Myrtle Beach Massage Parlors. The women were between 43 and 61 years old. It is suspected that these women are trafficking victims, having been smuggled into the U.S. and forced into prostitution to pay back debts to traffickers.

HCPD has been criticized for prosecuting prostitutes without due investigation into the workers’ willingness to participate. Additionally, the department has been accused of failing to provide translators at crucial times, such as in the case of trafficking victims who are often from out of country.

South Carolina has an anti-trafficking task force led by the Attorney General’s office, and there are several branches throughout the state. Kathryn Moorehead is the Coordinator of the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force.

“The South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force employs a multi-disciplinary and regional approach in combatting the crime in our state. We collaborate with national, state, and local partners to promote awareness, support law enforcement, and ensure the development of quality direct services for those who have been victimized,” said Moorehead. “In 2020, we hope to increase our formal partnerships, offer sector specific trainings, and generate more awareness through presentations, downloadable materials on our website, and special initiatives to ensure coordinated collaboration.”

In July 2018, concerned locals decided to act in conjunction with the HC Sheriff’s Department to relaunch their Coastal Human Trafficking Task Force, which encompasses Horry and Georgetown counties. The group was headed by Lt. Sherri Smith of the HC Sheriff’s Office and local activist Patty Jackson.

The group held their first two meetings that summer and created a heading committee. Their first big event was a rally on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Jan. 11, in which the Myrtle Beach Skywheel was illuminated with blue light, the color of human trafficking awareness.

The group recently held two events on Nov. 9, one in Pawley’s Island and one at Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach.

Lt. Sherri Smith is the co-leader of the Task Force and works for the Horry County Sheriff’s department. She oversaw the Myrtle Beach event.

“What we are doing here today is a poster campaign,” said Smith. “That is, every motel and hotel is mandated by state law to have a human trafficking poster in their establishment, so we have a bunch of volunteers who are out here today to help us take these posters to these hotels and give them a copy of the law so that they have those posters displayed. The idea is just to make sure that we bring awareness of this horrible crime to [the] forefront and make sure that citizens know about it, how to identify it, and if they do identify it, that they call someone, and they say something. We have an 800 number they can call, or they can call their local law enforcement agency.”

According to the NO Project, abduction is not the most common means of recruitment. More often, victims are manipulated into trafficking by a romantic partner, threats to family members, or a perceived debt to pay off. New immigrants are most at risk for trafficking.

Coastal Carolina University does not seem to have a reported human trafficking issue according to CLERY. If a student were to witness or hear about trafficking in the area, they have many avenues for assistance, including the Victim’s Hotline. The hotline is operated by Polaris, which details its plan of action in a recent press release: Polaris’ plan is to “enlist . . . law enforcement and other public and private-sector partners, moving those strategies into the real world to support survivors, prevent and disrupt human trafficking at scale.”

Students who feel they may have been approached by traffickers or have seen anything suspicious should submit a report, and those who have been victimized are encouraged to call the police. Beverly Wilhelm is the Victim Advocate at the CCU Police Department as well as co-leader of the Coastal Task Force’s youth advocacy.

“The goal of the regional task force is to build a broad coalition of volunteers from different disciplines; these volunteers are charged with engaging and educating community members in Horry and Georgetown Counties about Human Trafficking, a growing criminal industry,” Wilhelm said. “Students and faculty alike are encouraged to get involved to learn more visit or reach out to me at Public Safety [at] 843-349-2178 [or]”

Any students who find themselves in a threatening situation or see something suspicious should contact the CCU Police Department or Beverly Wilhelm.

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