In 1865, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in the United States, yet human trafficking, often referred to as “modern day slavery,” still exists in the country.

Unlike the stereotypes, human trafficking does not only occur in distant lands; it happens right here in South Carolina, even in Beaufort County.

It happens in wealthy neighborhoods, not just in poverty.

The victims are often U.S. citizens, and the traffickers are not usually the thugs we imagine they are.

Betty Smith (not her real name), a spokesperson for a local nonprofit organization called Fresh Start Healing Heart, said human traffickers are often “some of your best businessmen, some of your greatest modeling agencies.”

Smith said there have been cases of trafficking in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Columbia and Greenville. She cited one case in Beaufort County involving a woman who had been trafficked as a child by her father.

There was also a labor trafficking case in 2010 involving two restaurants in Bluffton and Beaufort.

Human trafficking is enough of a problem in the Lowcountry that there are now two nonprofit organizations working to put an end to it.

Fresh Start Healing Heart focuses on helping survivors of human trafficking in Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, Allendale and Colleton counties but will work with survivors throughout the state.

The group gives survivors a place to live and all the services they need to begin the healing process.

Fresh Start hopes to raise the necessary funding to purchase a home for survivors.

“We are really in desperate need of monthly donors so that we can get the house we’re looking for,” Smith said. “Basic living cost for one client is $660 a month. That’s not counting all the other services.”

Fresh Start as well as a group called the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking both work to educate the public about human trafficking. Members of the two groups attend each other’s meetings and communicate regularly.

According to its website, the Lowcountry Coalition connects victims, primarily in Beaufort County, with organizations that can help them.

The Fresh Start Healing Heart website defines human trafficking as “a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against his/her will.”

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s website says human trafficking can be labor trafficking, sex trafficking or a combination.

Victims can be male, female, young or old.

Wilson’s office oversees the statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, which has a chapter in the Lowcountry. Kathryn Moorehead, who has worked in international counter-trafficking programs for a number of years, joined the Attorney General’s office in December as coordinator of the state’s efforts to combat trafficking.

So, how did human trafficking reach Beaufort County?

Smith said the following factors attract the crime: military bases, tourism, corridor highways, poverty and ports, all of which are present in Beaufort County.

Smith said it is rewarding to help victims of trafficking, but it can also be incredibly difficult to work with people who have suffered so much.

Although she was never trafficked, she knows firsthand the pain of domestic violence, sexual assault and child molestation.

“You can feel their pain; you can see their pain,” she said. “You wish you could solve all their problems right away, but you can’t. You have to let them learn and grow through it.”

Smith said they are able to find trafficking victims by educating the public.

“The more educating we do, the more people can invite us in to speak or to educate or volunteer with us or donate, the more the clients come in, and the more survivors are found, and the more protected our community becomes.”

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.

Related Events:

  • Kathryn Moorehead, the new coordinator for trafficking programs in the S.C. Attorney General’s office, will be the speaker at a Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force meeting from 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 25. The meeting place had not been announced at press time. For more information, call 843-644-1991 or email healingheartstart@gmail.com.
  • To mark January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, the Savannah Traffick Jam will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 28 at Savannah State University Student Union Ballroom. The conference is free to community members. Continuing credits are available to professionals for a $53.74 registration fee. To register, visit www.EventBrite.com and search for the event.

The conference is sponsored by the Savannah Interagency Diversity Council. For more information, visit www.thesidc.org.