After being forced into prostitution in California in 2008, Megan Madsen returned to her home state of South Carolina more than a year ago in hope of rebuilding her life. She's been trying to get help ever since.
The 28-year-old Lexington resident said she has bounced from one agency to another and has yet to find help with her long-term recovery. That void led her to take up the cause as an advocate working to build a central clearinghouse victims can turn to for aid.
“I know what I went through, and I still can't get help,” she said. “It's easy to fall through the holes in the system.”
Sex trafficking awareness is growing in the Palmetto State, and groundwork for action has been laid after years of the problem lingering in the shadows.
But tangible progress is still difficult to see.
Victims have few shelters to turn to for sanctuary. The majority of police officers have yet to be trained in the intricacies of investigating sex trafficking crimes. And no one in the state is tasked with tracking trafficking cases — leaving officials without a clear idea of how big the problem is or where resources would best be targeted.
South Carolina's efforts to date have earned the state mixed grades from national experts on sex trafficking.
The Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors human trafficking issues, gave South Carolina high marks for passing a 2012 law to criminalize and punish sex traffickers. But the group said the state still lags when it comes to protecting minors trapped in the sex trade from facing prosecution.
Shared Hope International, another nonprofit leading efforts to eradicate human trafficking, gave South Carolina a “C” grade, largely due to a lack of services for victims and training on the issue for police and other officials.
Marie Sazehn, coordinator of the state's human trafficking task force for the Attorney General's Office, said officials across South Carolina are working to combat the illegal sex trade and help victims, but progress takes time.
“We need more resources across the board,” Sazehn said. “I don't think it will take years and years; we're just having to go step by step — we're building this ship as we're sailing it.”
Advocates, on the other hand, insist there is more that can be done now, including more focused efforts on helping those immediately in need.
The 2012 law created the human trafficking task force to quantify the problem and propose solutions, including training professionals to recognize signs of the sex trade and setting up services to rehabilitate victims. The law outlined directives for the task force but only mandated it “consider” carrying them out.
Some directives include coordinating the collection and sharing of trafficking data among agencies; reviewing existing victims' needs and recommending comprehensive services; and providing training to law enforcement, prosecutors and others.
“We're working on every single one of those things,” Sazehn said.
Sazehn wouldn't comment on pending human trafficking cases — including how many exist. She confirmed that the Attorney General's Office has not taken any cases to trial since the 2012 law passed.
The state also remains without a mechanism in place for monitoring trafficking arrests. The State Law Enforcement Division added a new code to its reporting system a year ago to allow police agencies to flag possible trafficking cases. But by August, no one had submitted one yet, according to a recent Clemson University study.
By contrast, New Jersey requires police agencies to report all trafficking arrests to that state's attorney general's office, according to Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for Acting Attorney General John Jay Hoffman. Since New Jersey passed its human trafficking law in May 2013, 33 sex trafficking arrests have been reported. The office keeps a running list of arrests on its web page.
The South Carolina task force made its first report about the scope of the trafficking problem last summer. Most of the cases cited came from newspaper reports, and the panel made this admission about the magnitude of the problem: “There is not abundant comprehensive data about human trafficking as it is happening in South Carolina.”
A second report from the task force is due by year's end, but there's no indication it will contain much new information on the scope of the problem. Sazehn said she hopes to have more data to present in December, but it likely wouldn't be comprehensive.
As the state grapples with pinpointing the size of the problem, resources for victims remain scant.
A dedicated sex trafficking shelter is set to open near Columbia this fall. The nonprofit Lighthouse for Life will serve child victims ages 12 to 18. The home, located in a secluded area, can accommodate up to six girls at one time. The goal, according to Director Andrea Wind, is to house them for a year while providing rehabilitation, counseling and education.
Hopewood Haven in Greenwood, a Christian organization dedicated to helping trafficking victims, opened a safe house sometime in the past year but did not return multiple requests for comment. It is unclear how many, if any, trafficking victims they are housing or what ages they can accommodate.
Another nonprofit, Doors to Freedom in North Charleston, has been raising money for years to open a shelter but has not yet done so. The organization does assist, however, when victims in the area are located, according to its website.
Sharon Rikard started Doors to Freedom after hearing horror stories from several young women who were forced into sexual servitude in Charleston. One woman said she was trafficked up and down the East Coast under threat of beatings until her abuser was arrested.
“How can you expect them to run away; most of the time they don't even know where they are?” Rikard said.
Many women arrested as minors complained that they were treated like criminals rather than victims, so they didn't get the help they needed to start a new life, she said.
“It's too easy simply to classify the girl as a runaway, addict or prostitute and move them through the system,” she said.
Many states have passed safe harbor laws that ensure minors are referred to service agencies instead of locked up when taken into custody. South Carolina has not, and children forced into trafficking can be jailed on related charges such as truancy and running away from home, some until it's time to testify.
Betty Houbion is a victim advocate who worked on the 2012 trafficking law with legislators. She said three key components to serving victims were left out of the bill at the time: safe harbor, a mandate allowing victims to clear their trafficking-related criminal records and prevention education in schools.
Attorney General Alan Wilson has said he would support safe harbor legislation. But a bill to accomplish that goal stalled this year in the House Judiciary Committee. The panel's chairman, Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, didn't return a call for comment.
Sazehn said debate is underway nationwide about locking up juveniles — even for their own good — and whether placing them in a detention facility or restrictive safe house might just alienate them further. The state is working with a handful of domestic violence shelters as an alternative to try to prepare them for trafficking victims. She said the task force also has cultivated a large network of trained professionals who can help with shelter or counseling when a victim is found.
The biggest task force accomplishments, Sazehn said, have been getting agencies to work together on the problem and training professionals to recognize the signs of sex trafficking.
She said training is occurring all the time and attendance to the voluntary sessions is increasing.
Still, she and others acknowledged that much more needs to be done. Calls to area law enforcement agencies reinforced that notion. Mount Pleasant police said they didn't have an officer proficient enough to speak on the topic. Others simply referred questions to North Charleston Police Detective Charlie Benton, considered one of the local experts.
Sazehn, however, said she feels good about the task force's progress and thinks South Carolina is “on par” with other states in tackling the issue.
Amy Farrell, an associate professor of criminal justice at Northwestern University, said many states indeed have struggled with similar challenges in getting their arms around the issue of sex trafficking.
Farrell is lead author of a study that examined obstacles to investigating and prosecuting trafficking cases across the country. The study, published in 2012, found that most officers aren't trained in ways to spot sex trafficking, to properly gather evidence in these cases or to get the cooperation of victims; and few prosecutors are trained in preparing these difficult cases for trial.
“It's a pretty big change,” Farrell said. “You have created a new kind of crime that law enforcement would have to learn how to identify. In every jurisdiction, the training process can be slow, unless people are willing to put resources behind it.”
She cited Massachusetts as a model state for handling trafficking cases, mainly because leaders obtained federal grant money for victim services.
Farrell said she has found that the jurisdictions making the biggest dent in trafficking have set up designated units to focus solely on the crime, as Los Angeles County in California did.
“If it's your job to go find your crime, you will, and you will take it upon yourself to train patrol officers to forward any potential tips to you,” she said. “But if it's no one's job to investigate this crime and you just have a major crimes division or a vice division investigating crimes as they happen to come across them, they won't happen to come across them, or it will be very rare.”
Success also depends on prosecutors working with investigators from the start to make sure that evidence needed for a conviction is collected, she said.
“If that doesn't happen, investigators build a case they think is a golden raft and give it to the prosecutor and the prosecutor says, 'I don't know what to with it,'” she said.
Earlier this year, FBI investigators in South Carolina realized sex trafficking here was a greater problem than they thought and took steps to address that.
Assistant Special Agent in Charge Robert Brown said an inquiry about trafficking from The Post and Courier prompted the FBI unit to assign one of its most knowledgeable agents to study the problem.
“He changed the way we now look at strip clubs and what we used to call pimps — how they recruit and manipulate,” Brown said. “As a result, we now have a new human trafficking investigation open.”
Brown said they also have asked FBI national headquarters to fund a new federal child exploitation task force in South Carolina to investigate trafficking. They hope to have it ready to go next year.
Madsen, the Lexington trafficking survivor, has filed paperwork with the secretary of state to establish a human trafficking resource center for South Carolina. Among other things, the center would create a database of trafficking cases and track the race, age and location of victims to see who is most at risk.
She said she hopes her work will help change the state's approach to trafficking victims, to help survivors see a life beyond selling their bodies to get by.
“I think a lot of girls stay on the streets because it's all they know — how would they fill out an application with past work experience?” she asked. “The systems aren't working together.”
Jamie Mitchell, a North Charleston prostitute who was originally forced into the trade, suggested police recruit help from people like her on the streets to tackle trafficking. But it's not just officers who can help; it's also “johns,” or those paying for the sex, she said.
“If they knew how many minors they were having sex with, I really think they would do something about it,” she said.
Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.