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Majority of South Carolina human trafficking cases involved victims under 18 years old, report shows

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South Carolina saw 50 human trafficking cases move through state courts in 2016, according to a report released this week by the state Attorney General's Office.

Of those cases, 36 involved victims who were under 18 years old, the report said. There are currently 28 human trafficking charges pending, 22 of which involve minor victims, and 12 open cases in federal court.

The report also recommended a number of proposals for 2017, including more robust data collection on cases, establishing a juvenile human trafficking diversion court, and increasing services, education and outreach.

Law enforcement personnel and advocates who work with victims say that it's more important than ever for residents to be aware that human trafficking is happening in their communities. 

"People don't want to accept the fact that this ugliness happens here," said Lt. Rita Avila Zelinsky, a spokeswoman for the Charleston County Sheriff's Office. 

The Sheriff's Office has a detective assigned to a Department of Homeland Security task force that works on cases, including human trafficking, Zelinsky said. In the past two years, that detective has worked on one case.

But that doesn't mean trafficking isn't happening in other jurisdictions around the state, she said. 

While many cases involve sex crimes, trafficking can also include exploitation of workers from foreign countries or other non-sexual crimes, Zelinsky said, adding that victims include people of all genders and backgrounds. 

The best strategy for fighting trafficking is community awareness, she said. 

"If you see something, say something doesn't just work for terrorism," Zelinsky said, pointing to a recent case in which an Uber driver in Sacramento, California, saved a 16-year-old girl from sex trafficking.

Karen Monahan, a spokeswoman for Darkness to Light, a Charleston-based nonprofit that works with victims of child sex abuse, said the stereotypical picture of sex trafficking — a subset of human trafficking — as kidnappings in faraway places that force their victims into prostitution, doesn't represent the typical case.

"A majority of children who are trafficked were victimized in a noncommercial way before," Monahan said. "It becomes a spectrum of abuse."

This could mean that someone close to the child is trading lewd photos on the internet, or trading sex with the child for rent, food or another commodity, she said.

Monahan echoed Zelinsky's statement that community awareness is key to preventing human trafficking of all types, adding that Darkness to Light runs a number of training courses aimed at educating law enforcement personnel, teachers and anyone else who could be working closely with children. 

"Any individual has the tools to intervene," she said. 

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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