COLUMBIA — Kathryn Moorehead has seen heinous acts committed against the weak and underprivileged throughout her career combating human trafficking.
The new coordinator of South Carolina's Human Trafficking Task Force recently joined the Attorney General's office after spending one-and-a-half-years tackling the issue in Cambodia.
As the director of a counter-trafficking organization, she would see girls as young as a year old coming to a shelter after a raid on a trafficking ring. More than 75 percent of Cambodia's 15,000 prostitutes are under age 16.
"Seeing a group of 6-year-old children come in, I just had to turn away to make sure I held it together," she said.
Moorehead joined the attorney general's office two weeks ago. In addition to leading the task force's quarterly meetings, she will work to increase data collection on occurrences here and educate the public at large about human trafficking.
Working overseas presented much different difficulties to addressing the problem than what's been seen in South Carolina. For example, sex trafficking in Cambodia is more blatant, she said, with a known culture of sex tourism where people travel to the country to pay for sexual encounters with young girls and boys.
In South Carolina, the trafficking is underground and much more difficult to track. Victims here don't appear to be as young as those in Cambodia, and there are many adult victims. But the effects on those who have been trafficked are often the same, no matter the age or location, Moorehead said.
"It's a heinous crime, and the impact can be really ugly," she said. "And it's always impactful in a negative way."
Before working in Cambodia, Moorehead spent a year taking on trafficking in Guyana, where she lived in a victim's shelter the first six months she was there. One lasting memory is how traffickers treated what they considered to be their property.
"Often times, the traffickers, if they haven't been arrested in a raid, want their 'product' back," she said.
Attorney General Alan Wilson said Moorehead's professional experiences will allow her to bring a fresh take on combating the problem in South Carolina, where forced sex and labor are two of the most common violations.
"Kathryn has an extensive background in victims’ services and has worked with human trafficking victims all over the world," he said. "I know that she will bring a unique perspective to the task force and will be an asset to our office and our state."
Moorehead worked in education in the early years of her career, where she sometimes would cross paths with a victim of human trafficking while working with at-risk youth in Massachusetts. Those experiences led her to pursue a Master of Education in risk and prevention from Harvard University.
"Human trafficking needed more attention," she said. "Not only ensuring victims' protection, but to make sure education was in place."
The South Carolina task force was established in 2012 when the Legislature passed a comprehensive package of trafficking laws, including having higher penalties for traffickers and allowing victims to take civil action against those who are convicted.
Moorehead said educating the residents of South Carolina about human trafficking is high on her list of things she'd like the task force to address sooner than later.
People in vulnerable life circumstances, be it because of socioeconomic struggles or problems in the home, need to have the resources to recognize a situation that could lead to sex or labor trafficking, she said. The public at large needs to know the signs of someone who might a victim, too.
And to do that, the state needs to focus on building comprehensive data on human trafficking cases so advocates can know in which communities to best focus their efforts, she said.
"There is limited data in the field because of the underground nature of the crime," she said. "So my focus is going to be to piece together data to create a system that's beneficial to us all."
Wilson said adding Moorehead to the team was another way the office is showing its commitment.
Having worked with trafficking organizations in Massachusetts before spending time in Cambodia and Guyana, Moorehead said she believes South Carolina's laws are ahead of some other states in the country.
"South Carolina has accomplished a lot," she said. "But I recognize that continued efforts need to be made."