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Legal professionals in position to spot human trafficking victims

By: renee.sexton//June 26, 2019//

Legal professionals in position to spot human trafficking victims

By: renee.sexton//June 26, 2019//

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Legal professionals occasionally come across a teenager charged with prostitution or a child in family court fearful of a parent or guardian which could indicate a more sinister situation — human trafficking.

Next to law enforcement and emergency medical personnel, attorneys and judges are in some of the most advantageous positions to help victims escape traffickers. Human trafficking — for both sex and labor — is happening in South Carolina communities, and most times the public doesn’t know it’s going on.

“We had seen an uptick in human trafficking cases across the state of South Carolina for several years now,” said Carrie Fisher Sherard, assistant U. S. attorney, South Carolina District. “And we have certainly had success in prosecuting many of those cases as have our state counterparts; they’ve had many successes as well.”

“But one of the things that we have also seen anecdotally, here in South Carolina — and then, we know on a national level — there’s more work to be done of course, but there are also more complex criminal organizations in the trafficking arena, and therefore we need to educate ourselves here at the U.S. attorney’s office and also our federal, state and local law enforcement partners so that we can better combat this problem.”

An educational workshop hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of South Carolina at the end of July is at capacity with a waiting list, but the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Human Trafficking Task Force also provides training programs statewide. It is in the process of organizing a guardian ad litem to help child trafficking victims.

“The opportunities to train and learn about human trafficking, learn about the need for guardian ad litems to step up into family courts for children who are involved in the department of juvenile justice system, we’re trying to help identify these children,” said Kathryn Moorehead, director of Human Trafficking Programs at the state attorney general’s office. “They don’t recognize it as being human trafficking. In an unfortunate way, it becomes sort of a part of either day-to-day life or just some terrible situation or part of a culture, and they don’t recognize it as the crime that it is.”

“For years we’ve done outreach both in-house and with other partners educating everyone from local partners in law enforcement and various nonprofits, churches — more of a public awareness campaign,” Fisher Sherard said. “But this is the first true advanced human trafficking training. We are hoping to take our investigations and prosecutions up to the next level and have a greater impact across the state of South Carolina.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, South Carolina District, reported its first sex trafficking case in 2007, Fisher Sherard said, with a second in 2010. As of 2018, more than 16 defendants have been indicted, convicted and/or sentenced. Fisher Sherard said sex trafficking of minors is the most common charge.

“We are interested in taking our investigations and prosecutions to the next level,” she said. “Congress has given us many great federal anti-trafficking statues that we can use as prosecutors. They have strong penalties and have proven successful here in South Carolina and elsewhere.”


According to the 2018 South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force Annual Report, 13 new defendants were charged with human trafficking in state courts in 2018. Two of those cases were closed. Overall, 64 charges of human trafficking were closed in state courts in 2018. Click here to read the report.

Fisher Sherard and Moorehead both agree that human trafficking cases often evolve from investigations into other charges, such as child pornography or drug possession. So educating attorneys on what to look for could save a trafficking victim.

“We know that in other places around the country, some trafficking investigations have benefitted from the use of money laundering investigation,” Fisher Sherard said. “So we wanted to educate ourselves and our law enforcement partners on really all the tools that can and should be used when investigating these cases.”

But sometimes the perpetrators are closer to the victims than one would suspect. Family members have been accused of trafficking children and exploiting people with mental disabilities.

“Family court judges in South Carolina, about a year or so ago, went to a national conference on minor sex trafficking and came back and have been quite motivated and have been traveling the state and they’re involved,” Moorehead said.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that in 2018 in South Carolina, the top relationships of traffickers to victims were employer, intimate partner, no relationship or familial connection.

Judges and attorneys can help identify potential victims and get them help.

“Making them aware of resources that are available that we will be providing under legislative mandate, a list of vetted resources, vetted providers that they can refer children to,” Moorehead said. “But also, the importance of them understanding red flags and the complexities of human trafficking so they can help flag a child who they may have concerns about in the courtroom.”

Fisher Sherard said attorneys can see the same clues law enforcement officers notice in potential human trafficking victims who may be clients — if they know what to look for.

“Look at each client and each case individually and ask in-depth questions,” she said. “Because human trafficking, both labor and sex trafficking, can be lurking virtually anywhere. And the scary thing is, we know from our own cases, and from cases in other parts of the country, you and I just as regular individuals, not even as attorneys, can come into contact with trafficking victims on a daily basis and never know.”

Fisher Sherard suggested paying special attention to clients who have been charged with drugs, prostitution, loitering or shoplifting violations.

“What is it that’s making them commit these crimes? Is someone controlling them? Are they being denied the basic necessities of life? Is that why they had to shoplift or are they addicted to substances and someone is controlling them through their addiction? Is that why they got picked up for drug possession? Be mindful that it’s out there and far more prevalent than people want to admit.”

“If you ever checked into a hotel, we don’t know if the laundry staff or janitorial staff someplace has been victimized by labor traffickers. Or if you’re an attorney who’s working a criminal case on the defense side, and this is one of those things that we need to be mindful of,” Fisher Sherard said.

Legal Assistance for Survivors of Trafficking is a network of multidisciplinary attorneys across the state who provide pro bono legal counsel and direct representation for survivors of trafficking. LAST served 28 survivors in 2018, according to the state Human Trafficking Task Force.

In 2018, the state Legislature voted to revise existing law that changed the South Carolina Department of Social Services definition of child abuse and neglect to include minor victims of trafficking in persons, which allowed for more protections for victims if their trafficker was a family member or guardian. The Legislature also passed a bill that reformed sentencing for trafficking of minor victims to include a heavier sentence than those convicted of trafficking an adult.

Follow Renee on Twitter @BobcatRenee

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