Bolstered by significant strides in the last six years, South Carolina officials and advocates say they are working overtime to end human trafficking in the Palmetto State.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson, other officials and advocates on Friday celebrated the progress made while acknowledging there is a long way to go in the fight. The state's Human Trafficking Task Force, which is run out of the Attorney General's office, also released its 2018 annual report.
According to the report, South Carolina was named the most improved state in the nation from 2017 to 2018 in terms of anti-human trafficking efforts by Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization that works to bring trafficking to an end.
Leaders are not resting on those laurels.
Kathryn Moorehead, the task force's director, said a number of partnerships and initiatives are planned for the coming year.
The task force will be working with two nonprofits, the Lynch Foundation and ERASE Child Trafficking, to provide comprehensive training to law enforcement officers that will help in identify and respond to cases, Moorehead said.
In addition to planned law enforcement training, the task force will hold its first training for healthcare providers on Jan. 24, she said.
A data collection initiative is also in the works.
"Without the data, we have this sort of general understanding of how big this problem is (but) we don't have the full picture," Moorehead said.
Among the data included in Friday's report was a breakdown of criminal trafficking cases.
In 2018, 64 cases were closed. About a third resulted in guilty pleas, and roughly half were sent to the federal court system. There are currently 20 cases pending in state courts, with a majority in Richland County, according to the report.
The majority of those cases involved sex trafficking, though Wilson said there has been a rise in labor trafficking associated with retail, hotel, restaurant and agriculture jobs.
"I can’t be more proud of how far we've come," he said. "This is not a partisan issue. ... We all own the problem. Everybody here has got to be part of the solution."
In 2012, a landmark state human trafficking bill formed the task force and sparked work in a way that had never happened before, according to experts.
Resources are being developed to house victims, get them therapy, education and other services. More rigorous enforcement of laws is leading to harsher penalties for those who enslave others into the commercial sex trade.
A major goal outlined for 2019 is to find grants and other funding that can be used to support programs like the Lowcountry-based Doors to Freedom and Midlands-based Lighthouse for Life, which have been certified by the S.C. Department of Social Services to provide treatment and support programs for female, minor trafficking victims.
"Many people think human trafficking is something you only see in movies, and I used to have the same perspective," Wilson said. "However, it’s happening in communities across South Carolina. We sit between Atlanta and Charlotte, two of the biggest hubs in the nation for trafficking."