A Heart for Freedom

By Helen Mitternight

Only a country that places very little intrinsic value on its vulnerable could support a whole industry in human trafficking, right? Imagine what that country where sexual slavery flourishes must be like.

Did you imagine the United States?

You should have, because sadly, humans are a cash crop in this country. Atlanta is the country’s top city for human trafficking, but Charleston should take note: We’re the second-most trafficked city in the state, right behind Greenville.

For the past three years on Memorial Day weekend, Myrtle Beach has the dubious distinction of being the highest-ranking city in the nation for human trafficking, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University.

In fact, 117 cases of trafficking were reported in South Carolina last year.

These statistics represent only a fraction of what is actually happening, says Julie Todaro, executive director of the Charleston Heart for Freedom, established to support A-21, a global nonprofit seeking to stop human trafficking. The statistics show only the survivors. Far too many don’t survive, she says.

“The sad fact is, even though that many cases were reported in South Carolina last year, we don’t have that many rescues,” Julie says.

Human trafficking is the sale of humans for organ harvesting, sex trade and cheap to free labor. Charleston Heart for Freedom focuses mostly on the sex and labor trafficking.

How does someone get lured into the trade?

According to Julie, the traders insist that a debt is owed. Paying off the debt takes servitude and sometimes that servitude means recruiting someone else into the life so that their labor reduces your debt.

Survivors have told A-21 that they were trafficked after answering false job ads, sold by their own families, lured by a lover, abducted, betrayed by a friend, or manipulated with false immigration information. In South Carolina, appallingly, most survivors say they were sold by their own families.

And it’s not just those with little money who get targeted.

“It can happen to a middle-class family,” Julie says. “A daughter is looking online for a job, she thinks she’s going to get a great modeling job, and it ends up being not that.”

But aren’t there laws against this kind of thing?  

There are. In fact, in 2012, the state passed legislation aimed at human trafficking that increased penalties and established a state task force, which A-21 works with. The problem is that it can be hard to recognize human trafficking. Someone can be arrested for, say, prostitution, and it can be hard to determine whether the person arrested is on the streets as part of a human trafficking ring.

It’s something Julie says they’re working on.

“We’re partnering with the task force and working with the police to ensure they’re trained consistently,” she says. “We’re working with them as well as medical professionals and teachers about the cues you can pick up on. For instance, if there’s a lot of drugs and alcohol involved, a lot of times, the girls are having to do this to themselves in order to survive in this world.”

The work is essential – Julie says human trafficking is second only to drug trafficking in scope and is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world.

Part of the work is getting the word out, and Julie’s group raises money for that education. Earlier this year, dozens walked or ran in the A21 Heart for Freedom 5K at Summerville Catholic School and, in November, the organization participated in a breakfast and raffle at The Passage Apartment Community in Summerville to raise funds.

Julie says she has empathy for the survivors – although she was never part of human trafficking, she herself is a survivor.

“I was a survivor of sexual abuse for many years,” she says matter-of-factly. “When I got to the other side, I had no moral compass for what sex should look like, no idea of what a real relationship was. I was a recovering drug and alcohol survivor. I’ve been sober for the last eight years, but my heart feels the pain of these girls’ emotional bondage. I had to retrain myself to be normal in society.”

Donate or volunteer at the Charleston Heart for Freedom website at charlestonheartforfreedom.com.

If you suspect human trafficking, call the toll-free National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888.