COLUMBIA - The state's top prosecutor wants Palmetto State residents to understand that not only is human trafficking real, it's happening in South Carolina.
It was a message Attorney General Alan Wilson reiterated several times Thursday to a room packed with members of law enforcement, the media and victim advocates gathered to find out how South Carolina would combat human trafficking in South Carolina.
A task force to come up with a plan was commissioned as part of a law passed in 2012 with the intent of strengthening South Carolina's human trafficking laws, after the state ranked in the "bottom of the bad list," Wilson said.
The Polaris Project, a national organization that fights global human trafficking, ranked South Carolina as No. 6 of the "Dirty Dozen" in 2011, for having weak laws on the issue.
Since the law was enacted, dozens of Palmetto State experts from 18 partner agencies have been working to come up with a plan on how to protect, support and serve human trafficking victims. The first hurdle: getting through to people who don't believe human trafficking is taking place.
"People don't think about human trafficking happening in South Carolina," Wilson said. "They certainly don't think about human trafficking happening in their community."
Another issue the task force ran into is that people stereotype what a human trafficker looks - and their victims - look like. Wilson said in the past, he didn't realize how big and pervasive the issue is in the state.
"It's not easy to fight a war against an enemy that you don't really see, who doesn't wear a uniform," Wilson said.
Part of the plan rolled out Thursday recommends collecting more information about human trafficking and creating a database to store information about cases between state and federal law enforcement. It also suggests additional training for law enforcement officers, teachers and Department of Social Services workers, among other "frontline" personnel, so that they can recognize a human trafficking case when it's before them.
That's why educating the public is so important, said Charleston County Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas.
"This is about one person being exploited and how do we deal with that," Lucas said. "But the public has to see that this is important, that there are ways to combat it and that positive results will come from it ... Nobody wants to see an 8-year-old girl being exploited."
Wilson said places like Charleston, which are full of tourists and lots of out-of-towners are a hotspot for human trafficking.
Last month, CaraLee Murphy, the East Coast Director of the A21 Campaign, which works to fight human trafficking, was in federal court in Charleston when a North Charleston man was sentenced to more than four years in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges in connection to a sex trafficking case.
A21 helped the 19-year-old victim secure housing at a California safe house for sex trafficking victims.
Speaking via video conference from that safe house, the woman told the judge about how 66-year-old Booker Vanderhorst, of North Charleston, prostituted her when she was 17.
"It was a horrific experience and he's robbed me of my innocence, my self-worth, my soul and my confidence," she said.
Vanderhorst was sentenced to more than four years in prison after pleading guilty to charges earlier this year in connection to the trafficking case.
The victim told the judge she is undergoing therapy at the San Diego safe house and is working to receive her high school diploma. The Post and Courier does not identify victims of sexual assault or their relatives.
The woman said she is suffering from psychological and physical effects including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, Hepatitis and HPV.
"I was trafficked," she said. "This shouldn't happen in America."
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.