Spartanburg Herald-Journal: Human trafficking hidden but present in Upstate

Felicia Kitzmiller reports at the Herald-Journal:

Just because it can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That’s the case with human trafficking in the Upstate.

January is human trafficking awareness month, and statewide and local events are scheduled to bring attention to the issue that exploits about 21 million people worldwide, including 1.5 million in the United States and Canada, according to the International Labor Organization.

Justin Bradley, who will be sworn in this week for his first term on Spartanburg County Council, will host a human trafficking awareness rally at 2 p.m. Sunday at The Beacon Drive-In. Switch 42:16, a Greenville organization dedicated to preventing human trafficking and particularly targeting sexual exploitation and prostitution, will speak at the rally, along with Spartanburg County Clerk of Court Hope Blackley and a member of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s human trafficking task force.

The event will be one of Bradley’s first official actions as a county councilman.

“It’s an area I’ve been interested in for a number of years. I would have to say a large part of it is my faith. I feel like part of our calling as Christians is to speak for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” Bradley said. “… The reason I ran for council is we have all these problems and the only way to solve them is by starting in your own community.”

Human trafficking is perceived as a problem that happens somewhere else, to some other people, Bradley said, but truthfully, it is quietly happening everywhere.

“There’s no doubt that it’s happening here …, but we don’t have many cases, or even many reports,” said Sgt. Tony Brown, supervisor of the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit. Human trafficking is a difficult crime for law enforcement officers because victims are often unaware of their rights and the criminality of what is happening to them, or the victims are so afraid their traffickers will hurt them or their families that they refuse to cooperate with law enforcement, Brown said.

“We’ve come across situations that we know (the victims) have been trafficked, but they won’t cooperate,” Brown said. “… Slavery is not over in America; it’s just a different kind of slavery.”

Brown said about 60 percent of U.S. trafficking cases are related to prostitution. Forced labor makes up most of the other cases. Restaurants and spas are among the “hot spots” for human trafficking. The prevalence of human trafficking often picks up in advance of large events, and traffickers will shuttle their victims to different locations to meet the demand for services and avoid detection.

This is where Spartanburg County’s position at the intersection of Interstates 85 and 26 is crucial. The only recent local human trafficking case sprung from Operation Rolling Thunder, an interagency highway safety sting. During a traffic stop, officers discovered seven people hidden in a truck. Brown said the case was given to federal law enforcement for prosecution.

Attorney General Wilson is expected to propose legislation that will help law enforcement fight human trafficking during a news conference at 2 p.m. today.

Brown said anyone who suspects human trafficking should contact their local law enforcement for further investigation.