Local agencies, Bon Secours join forces to fight Upstate sex trafficking

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According to Shannon Piller of the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, one of the main misconceptions regarding sex trafficking in Greenville and the Upstate is the assumption that it’s not even happening here.

“Many can’t wrap their heads around the fact that there’s a large commercial sex industry here and a sex trafficking problem in this area,” says Piller, who has been a human trafficking investigator for three years and in law enforcement for more than two decades.

The increase in sex trafficking cases in the Upstate can largely be attributed to a combination of its geographic location and growth. Atlanta is one of the worst cities in the country for sex trafficking, and Charlotte, N.C., is consistently within the Top 10. The region’s central location between the two major metropolitan areas, along with its recent population boom, has led to an evolving market. “Within Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson… people know they can come here and make money,” Piller says.

“When we talk to defendants in cases, they tell you Atlanta is too oversaturated and overflowing, so it starts to spill out into smaller towns. Being in between those bigger cities has been pushing it into our town,” he continues. “Traffickers feel more comfortable coming in and out of our city with little to no detection just because of the resources — or lack thereof. The bigger Greenville gets, we’re going to have those bigger-city issues.”

The increase in sex trafficking cases in the Upstate can largely be attributed to a combination of its geographic location and growth. Atlanta is one of the worst cities in the country for sex trafficking, and Charlotte, N.C., is consistently within the Top 10.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, common venues for sex trafficking in South Carolina in 2016 were hotels and motels; commercial-front brothels, such as illicit massage parlors; residential brothels; and online advertisements. “Most of what we are seeing is through online prostitution. In other words, places … that have escort or dating sections where people post ads for sex,” Piller says.

The majority of the cases Piller and his investigators encounter involve female victims under age 18, a pattern that aligns with overall state numbers released in the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force 2016 Annual Report. Last year, there were 50 charges of trafficking in the state courts, with 36 of those cases involving minors. Out of an additional 28 cases pending in state courts, 22 involve minors. Runaway youth and those in group homes and foster care settings are more at risk for victimization, Piller says. Last year, out of almost 300 runaways in the Upstate, 43 were potential victims of sex trafficking. National statistics report that one in five runaways will be approached by a sex trafficker within the first 48 hours of their leaving.

The statistics challenge a common belief about the commercial sex industry: that prostitution is a so-called victimless crime, Piller says. But individuals under 18 years old “cannot legally consent to be involved in commercial sex,” he emphasizes. “There’s no such thing as child prostitution. It’s trafficking.”

The majority of the cases Piller and his investigators encounter involve female victims under age 18.

In addition to his investigative duties, Piller is the head of the Upstate Human Trafficking Task Force, which focuses on awareness training and education. Last year, the task force held 104 sessions that reached 5,310 individuals, both outside of and within law enforcement. “Even in the law enforcement community, we’re still educating a lot on what the law states and what the law requires to make a proper charge,” Piller says. “We’re teaching awareness and the basics of it, but when we get into the investigations, we’re teaching law enforcement to proactively go after this crime.”

But law enforcement alone can’t combat sex trafficking. The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office relies on a variety of partner organizations, including the Phoenix Center for pro-bono counseling, the Julie Valentine Center for victim services, and Safe Harbor for immediate shelter. SWITCH, a faith-based nonprofit that seeks to end sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in the Upstate, closely coordinates with the Sheriff’s Office to provide case management, conduct intervention efforts, and hold education sessions.

For Zaina Greene, executive director of SWITCH, the community needs to be educated about the warning signs of sex trafficking. “You’re not going to spot it before you know what you’re looking for,” says Greene. In 2016, the organization held 65 training sessions for 3,065 attendees, and this year they have already completed 34 speaking engagements.

Hospital systems also play a key role in detecting cases of sex trafficking, because victims often come into contact with health care providers and staff. According to a study cited by Polaris Project, “88 percent of trafficking victims reported accessing medical care during their trafficking situation.” That statistic is part of the reason why Bon Secours St. Francis Health System has launched a new initiative to train employees to recognize the signs of sex trafficking while forming partnerships with organizations like SWITCH.

As a Catholic, faith-based hospital, St. Francis has a moral responsibility to try to raise awareness, says Alex Garvey, senior vice president of mission. “We have an obligation to take care of our brothers and sisters, but in particular we need to take care of the poor and vulnerable,” he adds. “If we don’t be an advocate for those that don’t have a voice and can’t bring hope to them, then we’d have to take a step back and take a serious look at ourselves and ask how we are taking care of God’s people.”

St. Francis initially focused on educating their emergency room staff and other medical personnel working on the front lines, “because they are the ones who recognize the symptoms first,” Garvey says. “We’re educating them to be aware not only of [physical] signs or symptoms but also psychological issues. … There’s a pattern for them that we train our staff to be aware of.”

“We have an obligation to take care of our brothers and sisters, but in particular we need to take care of the poor and vulnerable.” –Alex Garvey, senior vice president of mission, Bon Secours St. Francis Health System

Having health care providers be equipped with this knowledge can help offset one of the chief obstacles to uncovering cases of sex trafficking: Victims rarely self-identify. “They aren’t kicking our door down and reporting that they’re victims of sex trafficking, so that’s a No. 1 problem,” Piller says. “We compare it to domestic violence a lot, if there’s psychological or physical intimidation and they’re fearful of their trafficker.”

“There’s a lot of mistrust, believe it or not,” Garvey says. “Even when our medical personnel can sit with them and ask them questions, they don’t know if they’re just being set up.” But by undergoing specialized training, hospital staff will be better prepared to approach the delicate situation of interacting with a potential trafficking victim. “We’re empowering them to do their jobs,” he adds.

Throughout the year, St. Francis will continue to work with SWITCH and other entities to offer continuing education and outreach. In addition to spreading awareness within the health care setting, St. Francis hopes to connect with other faith-based organizations, nonprofits, schools, and churches. “We always find our investment in the community is magnified when we work with partners,” Garvey says.

“We believe education will be the impetus or the flame to start a bigger fire,” he adds. “We’re trying to create a level of awareness in the city. … We want to make sure people know it’s happening on our doorstep.”

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