Recent North Charleston human trafficking case puts spotlight on modern-day slavery in S.C.

Human trafficking illustration. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

A young Mexican woman found walking confused down a neighborhood street described a promise of work as a housekeeper but the reality of being forced to sell her body.

The story plays out too frequently in transient states such as Florida and California. But two days before Thanksgiving, police found this woman in a North Charleston subdivision off Ashley Phosphate Road.

Officials arrested her alleged captor, another Mexican woman, on human trafficking charges, raising the question of how frequently this crime occurs locally.

The short answer, according to U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles: "We don't know yet." Asked about the North Charleston case, he added, "I don't have any reason to believe it's an aberration."

That's because South Carolina provides all the right ingredients for human trafficking, Nettles explained. A network of major interstates means easy transportation, and thriving tourism and agricultural industries attract laborers.

Human trafficking translates to modern-day slavery, or forcing people into work, often in the sex trade. In smuggling cases, by contrast, people typically move willingly in order to enter a country illegally.

This year, South Carolina lawmakers passed a bill that added human trafficking to the list of violent crimes. Another proposed bill that fell short during the 2010 legislative session would have provided for a task force to fight the crime, plus penalties for traffickers and restitution, housing and counseling for victims.

'Open our eyes'

Last month, federal officials held a training conference for local law enforcement officers at North Charleston City Hall to help them better identify and handle human trafficking cases. Sitting among the officers was a retired nun, Sister Mary Thomas Neal, who serves as a liaison to the United Nations.

From her quiet convent nestled between live oaks and Charleston Harbor on James Island, Neal pens monthly action alerts and helps prepare kits for human trafficking victims -- packages that include essentials such as soap, toothpaste and shampoo.

"All of us need to open our eyes and look below the surface at people around us," Neal said. Reflecting on the North Charleston case, she added, "I'm awed by the young woman who escaped. I stand in awe of her courage and her self-esteem to know she was better than that."

The nun travels to New York every year, sometimes twice, to sit in those esteemed chairs at the U.N. In the months between, she works with groups across the state dedicated to the same cause -- of which there are many, including Greenville's Not For Sale, Myrtle Beach's Eastern Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Hilton Head's Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Charleston lacks its own nonprofit, but it holds a unique spot nationally in caring for trafficking victims trying to build stable lives locally. Liz Stowe runs the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program for North Charleston-based Family Services Inc. Through a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the program recently began helping victims of human trafficking who relocate to Charleston. So far, she has worked with two people, neither of whom had fallen victim in South Carolina.

'A grass-roots thing'

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 provides services similar to what refugees receive. Because prosecutors need trafficking victims' testimony in court, those victims also can qualify for immigration relief, including a special visa called a T visa.

Finding them the services they need, such as a place to live or psychological counseling, starts first with finding someone who speaks their language.

"The biggest struggle is it's definitely a grass-roots thing," Stowe said.

As human trafficking cases increase -- or become more readily discovered and prosecuted -- across the country and state, the pressure grows to educate every resident on warning signs, according to Carrie Sherard, an assistant U.S. attorney based in Greenville. Sherard began monitoring human trafficking while working in the Florence office.

She pointed out that trafficking victims come in all forms, even men from the United States who need money and seek help from the wrong people.