This type of behavior, where minors are sexually exploited and assaulted in exchange for money, drugs or anything else of value, doesn’t just happen overseas or in remote foreign countries.
It happens in the U.S., and experts worry that many youth trafficking victims may be slipping through the cracks.
Advocates are hopeful that increased education, attention and new initiatives will help.
In 2015, the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center helped five confirmed or suspected victims of child sex trafficking from across Charleston and Berkeley counties. Last year, they served nearly 70 of these youth, many of whom are 12 to 16 years old.
These numbers aren’t slowing. In the first six months of 2020, the center has served 48 child sex trafficking victims.
But the spike in cases doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s been an increase in trafficking itself.
“I think we’ve just become better at identifying it,” said Carole Swiecicki, Dee Norton’s executive director.
That’s because this severe form of child sexual abuse has existed for years, largely without being correctly identified.
“When an adult is exchanging money or drugs or something for access to their child, which they know that that access is to sexually abuse them or sexually assault them, that’s not just sexual abuse,” Swiecicki said. “That’s commercial sexual exploitation. That’s trafficking.”
In some cases, a child might not understand that they’re being trafficked, she said, and child trafficking doesn’t always involve coercion or force.
It also doesn’t have to involve money. Commercial trafficking also includes situations where the victim engages in sexual activity in exchange for non-monetary items, such as food, housing or protection.
Awareness of the issue and its impact on South Carolina children has made strides in recent years, in part due to the collaborative work of children’s advocacy centers and a statewide human trafficking task forced launched in 2012 under the leadership of the S.C. attorney general.
Despite these best efforts, child sex trafficking, also known as the commercial sexual exploitation of children, still remains a predominantly invisible issue.
In 2013, Dee Norton began spearheading efforts in the Charleston community to educate professionals and work to identify these youth as victims of child sex trafficking.
“We started raising that awareness and becoming more aware of ourselves,” Swiecicki said.
In 2014, the center launched its Improving Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Address Child Trafficking Program to better serve confirmed or suspected victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children. Working with law enforcement officers and the S.C. Department of Social Services, the center has crafted a specialized response protocol to help youth who have been commercially sexually exploited.
This is often a challenging task, said Kathryn Moorehead, the director of Violence Against Women Act and human trafficking programs at the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.
“It’s difficult, given the complex trauma that many of these children have gone through,” she said. “Oftentimes, children don’t understand they were victimized because of the manipulation and the psychological component used by traffickers.”
These youth might not be comfortable sharing their story right away with a forensic interviewer, Swiecicki said. They might not be ready to start receiving therapy or they might be harder to engage. But that’s OK, she said.
“We realized with these youth that we needed a little bit different of a response, a bit more tailored response,” she said.
The center has received various grants to train professionals on how to recognize the red flags of child sex trafficking and how to effectively help the victims.
Last year, the center was able to successfully renew a federal grant from the U.S. Office for Victims of Crime. Dee Norton will leverage this funding and other community grants to further support its existing IMPACT coordinator and hire a new full-time employee who will provide more in-person advocacy services with victims.
“As you can see, the cases are growing … and there’s a need for more in-person advocacy services,” Swiecicki said.
Shifting the perception
Katelyn Brewer, the CEO of Darkness to Light, a Charleston-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering and educating adults to prevent child sexual abuse, said she wasn’t surprised to learn that Dee Norton had seen such an increase in child trafficking cases over the past four years.
Part of it is likely a result of increased awareness and better identification, she said. But she’s deeply concerned about the recent explosion of child sexual abuse material online over the past decade.
“Those kids have to be coming from somewhere, and unfortunately they’re coming from our communities and our neighborhoods,” she said. “For me, it’s really important that we destigmatize or shift the stereotype that human trafficking is just an international phenomenon in poor countries, because it’s happening every single day in the United States with American children.”
Unlike Dee Norton, Darkness to Light doesn’t provide any direct victims’ services. Instead, its job, as Brewer puts it, “is to prevent children from ever getting to Dee Norton.”
It does this by training adults to be more aware of their surroundings, recognize the signs of abuse and inform them on how to safely report it.
There are some warning signs to be aware of, she said.
Oftentimes, the youth who are commercially exploited are especially vulnerable because of a past history of abuse. As a result, it’s not uncommon for them to have behavioral problems. They might skip school or run away from home.
“Those kids a lot of times get left behind and missed,” Swiecicki said. “And I think that’s something that we’re realizing. … I think that’s part of why they get missed is because people don’t realize that some of those red flags aren’t just red flags for behavior problems, they are red flags for trafficking, too.”
Another, more obvious, warning sign, would be if a child or teenager has a so-called boyfriend or partner that’s much older than they are. Many signs of child sex trafficking also mirror sexual abuse or child abuse in general, including withdrawal, depression and changes in behavior.
“If you can educate yourself on child sexual abuse and know what some of those signs are and see changes in those children, you might be an active bystander and you might save that kid,” Brewer said.
A hidden crisis
Hopeful Horizons, a children’s advocacy, domestic violence and rape crisis center that serves Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, Jasper and Allendale counties, usually serves three to five victims of child sex trafficking each year, according to CEO Kristin Dubrowski.
Surprisingly, Dubrowski said, the center hasn’t seen any of these cases over the past year.
It’s hard to say why that is, but Dubrowski thinks it could be in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The center has seen a slight decrease in its requests for services since mid-March, she said.
Making things harder: Teachers and school administrators are some of the most frequent reporters of suspected child abuse. Since schools were closed across the country this spring, those referrals have dropped significantly.
But even before the pandemic, identifying these victims is a notoriously difficult task.
“I think it’s a really hidden crime that a lot of people don’t know about, or they don’t think it’s happening here,” Dubrowski said.
That’s why advocacy and awareness efforts are ongoing, Moorehead said.
The S.C. Department of Social Services will conduct agencywide training in the upcoming weeks to teach its employees how to better identify victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Once that happens, Moorehead said she wouldn’t be surprised if the state sees even higher numbers of these cases.
“I said back then, ‘Get ready, the storm is coming,'” Moorehead said, referencing 2018 legislation that broadened the definition of child abuse and neglect to better include cases of child trafficking. “Recently I said to somebody, ‘This isn’t a storm. This is a tsunami.'”