Spartanburg Herald-Journal: Spartanburg rally draws attention to human trafficking

From Jenny Arnold at the Herald-Journal:

State and local officials brought the often hidden issue of human trafficking to light during a rally at the Beacon Drive-In Sunday.

The rally was hosted by newly sworn Spartanburg County Councilman Justin Bradley and featured speakers from local government, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office and Switch, a Taylors-based nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking and assist victims, particularly those who have been sexually exploited.

Bradley presented a proclamation declaring January as human trafficking awareness month in Spartanburg County. National events are expected 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.

“Human trafficking is a hidden but, unfortunately, too prevalent, issue,” Bradley said. “It happens in our own communities. It happens here, but it’s hard to know the scale.”

Bradley cited a recent example in Spartanburg County. During Operation Rolling Thunder, a traffic enforcement initiative by the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies, officers discovered seven people hidden in a truck. The case was given to federal law enforcement for prosecution.

Human trafficking can be likened to modern-day slavery, Bradley pointed out. But the majority of victims, either through the sex trade or forced labor, are not kidnapped. Very often, victims know their traffickers, officials say.

According to Switch, at least 100,000 children in the United States are exploited through pornography or prostitution every year. The average age of a child first exploited through prostitution is 13.

Stephanie Johnson of Switch told those in attendance that it’s the goal of her organization to open a shelter that will aid women in receiving treatment of substance abuse, which often goes along with sexual exploitation, and for the trauma of sexual abuse. She said those who have been sexually abused are more likely to be exploited.

“Law enforcement is currently identifying (human trafficking) cases all over the state,” said Marie Sazehn, representing the S.C. Attorney General’s Office at the rally.

Sazehn, who coordinates the state’s human trafficking task force, said residents can get involved by donating to or volunteering with nongovernment agencies and nonprofits that seek to end human trafficking, raise awareness of the issue and attend rallies such as Sunday’s in Spartanburg. She said residents should remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to law enforcement.

“If you ever see something, say something,” Sazehn said. “Everyone gets that gut feeling.”

Spartanburg County Clerk of Court Hope Blackley, whose two sisters were killed in violent relationships, said it’s important for people to be aware of the signs. Bringing awareness of human trafficking is key to stopping it.

“I am all for educating anyone and everyone we can on this,” Blackley said. “We can make a difference if we can educate ourselves.”

Blackley praised Bradley for organizing the rally.

“You’ve not even had your first council meeting yet,” Blackley said, with a smile.

To view the state plan to address human trafficking, visit www.scag.gov/human-trafficking. To learn more about Switch, visit www.switchsc.org.

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