Trying to Curb Pervasive Problem

The advertisement for escort services said the girl was 20 years old and 100 percent independent. But when FBI agents and local cops raided the motel over the weekend, they found a 16-year-old runaway who was one of three women working for a pimp, who was out on bond on a murder charge.

This sting in Columbia, South Carolina is a typical scenario for teens caught in the sex trade. But it can be difficult for local police, health care workers and sexual trauma advocates to recognize them. “Is the cop arresting a 15-year-old for prostitution or is there more to it?” said Laura Hudson , executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council. “They have to do more than look beyond the obvious.”

Those who work in law enforcement and as victims advocates said they do not know how many other underage people are being forced to work as prostitutes in South Carolina. But they hope a human trafficking law passed during the state’s last legislative session helps combat the problem. That law created an attorney general’s task force that is directed to develop law enforcement training, set up a statewide hot line and help define the scope of human trafficking in the state. The law also increased penalties for human trafficking and gave the attorney general the authority to present cases to a state grand jury. The law covers those forced into prostitution as well as indentured labor.

Cases come through the system but police, hospital workers and others who come in contact with victims don’t always recognize the situation. Investigators need to look for certain indicators of child-sex trafficking when making prostitution arrests, Ginny Waller, executive director of Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, said. Those include age, whether the prostitute was arrested at a hotel and drug and alcohol use, she said.

Police found the 16-year-old working as a prostitute through the website Backpage.com. Backpage.com is the most common website for law enforcement to find prostitutes, but investigators also find them on other social media outlets. Only on rare occasions do they still find a traditional street walker, said Columbia interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago. One problem, Waller and Santiago said, is there is no way to tell how old a prostitute is from a listing.

Learn more at Noelle Phillips’ Greenville Online article: Human trafficking law looked at as tool to curb pervasive problem.

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