Human trafficking remains growing problem in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Officials know human trafficking in South Carolina is a growing problem. A new system to collect data will be a big step toward helping prosecutors, law enforcement, and private groups understand exactly what they are facing, state Attorney General Alan Wilson said Friday.

Wilson released his Human Trafficking Task Force's report for 2018 , which found the state has made big strides in fighting the exploitation of people for sex or labor since the panel was created in 2012.

Prosecutors closed 64 human trafficking cases in 2018 with about half of them being forwarded to federal law enforcement. Almost all the rest ended in guilty pleas in state court, according to the report.

[LINK: National Human Trafficking Hotline]

The task force's chief goal in 2019 is to implement a new data collection system that Wilson said will finally give his office the full scope of the problem in South Carolina.

Human trafficking for sex is especially bad in tourist areas, where vacationers seek out casual sexual encounters, said Wilson, adding that the task force found the most arrests at massage parlors and spas.

The victims of traffickers are often poor people in rural areas along with people in this country illegally, who are scared to reach out to law enforcement, Wilson said.

The task force has also expanded beyond just law enforcement. In the past year, the group has enlisted the help of hospitals, where doctors and nurses can often detect abuse during examinations, and the South Carolina Trucking Association, which has been a valuable help to police, Wilson said.

[RELATED: Bill proposed to provide funding for nonprofits that help human-trafficking victims]

"You don't think about truckers, but where do you think these traffickers and the victims that are being peddled as prostitutes are going? They are going to the truck stops," Wilson said at a Statehouse news conference releasing the report.

Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette was also at Friday's event, marking her first appearance on behalf of Gov. Henry McMaster since being sworn into office Wednesday. Evette is the first lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket as the governor after a change in the state constitution and will be charting a new course for that office.

She said McMaster, a former prosecutor, is making fighting human trafficking one of his administration's top priorities and the first lady, Peggy McMaster, plans to make it her own cause as well.

Evette said the new data collection system will likely lead to a sharp increase in trafficking cases reported in 2019.

"We know this number pales in comparison to what is actually going on," Evette said.

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