Modern-day slavery: Shining a spotlight on human trafficking

Modern-day slavery: Shining a spotlight on human trafficking
A Columbia woman spoke about being a victim of human trafficking. (Source: WMBF News)
A Columbia woman spoke about being a victim of human trafficking. (Source: WMBF News)

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Most people don't believe human trafficking happens in America, and certainly not in South Carolina.

They see it as something that only happens in movies like "Taken." Sadly, they are wrong.

Today, a spotlight is shining onto the dark, sinister world of human trafficking and the all-too-real truth that human slavery exists in the United States, and in cities and towns across South Carolina.

In fact, modern-day slavery is alive and thriving. While advocates, survivors, prosecutors and law enforcement want to find traffickers, too often they're not being caught and they're not facing penalties for their crimes.

It is a sad reality that Megan Madsen, who grew up in a middle-class family along Lake Murray, knows all too well.

In 2008, Madsen's life changed forever after she found herself desperate for a job following the dissolution of her marriage.

"I went online on Craigslist and applied for a job," Madsen said. "I knew that something was weird about it, so I invited my roommate to come with me."

She was right to be concerned. The posted job was with a massage agency, one that would train and certify her.

The woman who contacted her also offered to drive Madsen and her roommate to the interview. That "interview" was at a gated apartment complex.

"We went inside, and she said it would just be a very quick sit-down meeting," Madsen recalled. "We get there and she takes our driver's license and social security number and said she was going to make copies of it."

From there, the situation turned very dark, very fast.

"Out walked the boss - that was what we had to call him - but he was the trafficker," Madsen said.

Stories like Madsen's aren't ones most people are used to hearing about in South Carolina. Until recently, there weren't even human trafficking laws in place in the state.

"Before 2012, we didn't realize we had as big a problem as we do in South Carolina," said S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

That problem was brought to the forefront of the public eye, thanks in part to victim and survivor advocates like Betty Houbion.

Convincing state officials of the need for the law, however, wasn't easy at first.

"They really did not know what it was about, they'd barely heard about it," Houbion said.

The bill itself at that time was referred to as S.C. Act 258 Human Trafficking. It was introduced to state legislatures in 2011, and passed in 2012. The legislation clearly defined what labor and sex trafficking are, established a task force comprised of the Attorney General's office, law enforcement across the state and other agencies and advocates, and mandated training for law enforcement and prosecutors.

"Before 2012, South Carolina was ranked by as one of the worst states in the country with human trafficking statues on the books," Wilson said.

That changed when the bill passed.

"South Carolina was raised to most improved, and became highlighted," Houbion commented. "And I noticed some of our bill is spotlighted and highlighted among the report that comes out every year."

For the first time, law enforcement and prosecutors in South Carolina had a law, and a way to arrest and charge traffickers who were becoming increasingly resourceful.

In Madsen's case, her trafficker linked the ads he posted online back to her.

She said the trafficker immediately dressed her up in lingerie, took pictures of her, and posted the photos on Craigslist under "adult services". He used Madsen's phone number for people to call and order.

"He would post each of the girls," Madsen said. "My name was Summer at the time, and he had posted that I was a new southern young, like a southern girl."

Then, they would wait for the "Johns" to reach out. Madsen said she and the other girls were taught how to find out if the customers were potentially law enforcement.

Horror stories like Madsen's led not only to the passage of the state's human trafficking bill in 2012, but a new law in 2015.

The legislation introduced last year gave the state grand jury the ability to go after human traffickers. It also allows local law enforcement to cross county lines.

In January, the state grand jury made its first bust.

Six human traffickers were indicted in Richland County in a case that stretched across four counties: Aiken, Lexington, Orangeburg and Richmond, according to Wilson. The victims were minors who were being sold for sex.

In some cases, victims are chained to pillars or locked in basements. However, that's not often the case.

"A lot of times trafficking victims aren't kidnapped by their traffickers. A lot of times, they come and go freely but they are being coerced or threatened to the lifestyle," Wilson said.

Traffickers condition victims to believe the life they're being given is their only option.

Madsen said she never saw anyone get beat up, but remembered the gun her trafficker kept tucked in behind his pants.

"There were threats that were made," she said. "There was a lot of intimidation."

Madsen was already struggling with addiction when she was taken. Her trafficker reinforced it, giving her drugs and alcohol.

Much of what happened in the three days she was captive she doesn't remember. She said memories started coming back years later. But she knew on that third day, she'd had enough.

"I didn't care if I was going to die escaping, because I might have died staying there," Madsen said.

Her roommate who had tagged along was already in deep. Madsen tried to convince her to leave.

"She actually punched me in my face, and we got into a fight," she said. "I took off running and I hopped a fence and ran to the gas station and called law enforcement."

The John who had bought her, helped her escape. When she told police what happened, she said she wasn't treated like a victim.  Police took her story down and sent her on her way.

The road Madsen was on continued to slope downward, as she coped with what had happened and tried to deal with legal matters against her.

"I had a nervous breakdown a couple days after everything had happened, after I'd escaped," she said.

When other victims came forward, Madsen's name was brought up in the investigation. She found herself arrested on a bench warrant for missing a court appearance.

"I went in and told my story and did a police lineup for several hours and then went to jail for a week," she said.

Madsen ultimately wasn't charged with anything and her trafficker, "the boss," was eventually caught. She had to testify against him.

"He got 12 years and eight counts of pimping and pandering and promoting prostitution, so he will get out in 2021," Madsen said.

Following the conviction, Madsen found herself struggling for years, asking what did she do wrong, and why her word wasn't good enough.

"Why did it take someone else to escape the situation and come forward and they investigated her and they didn't investigate me?" she said. "And there I was with my face beat up and I had the man with me that just purchased me, and he knew what was going on. I couldn't rationalize with any of it and then he didn't get convicted of trafficking."

Madsen still struggles, but she has changed following many bad decisions that led to her life spiraling out of control.

Her case happened in California, but it's one that could happen anywhere. As much as the fight against human trafficking is stressed, there hasn't been a single arrest for it in Horry County.

Wilson said, despite that, it is happening here.

"I can tell you this, the coastal areas, anywhere there's a higher rate of tourism, you're going to have a spike in human trafficking activity," Wilson said. "I believe Myrtle Beach is a hotbed of it."

Police are required to undergo human trafficking training. Myrtle Beach Police Lt. Joey Crosby said all MBPD officers go through it, and the department also has a three-man task force.

As for why there aren't arrests made, authorities say they just aren't finding it. Something that is proving difficult is knowing the difference between prostitutes and human trafficking victims. That requires proof from the victims, who often find it difficult to turn on their traffickers.

"They're traumatized, and they like their trafficker, and they fear their trafficker," Houbion said. "More, they fear the police. The law enforcement is an authority to fear, and traffickers tell them that if you leave and call the police, they're just going to arrest you."

As for Madsen, she isn't a victim. She is a survivor. She moved away from California after her ordeal, back to South Carolina, where she lives in Columbia working as a victim's advocate.

Madsen also started her own foundation, The Human Trafficking Resource Center of South Carolina, which works closely with other non-profits and state agencies.

"Through my recovery I had the opportunity of meeting people that were doing things because I had reached out for services through them for myself," she said. "Even though I didn't fit into their mission, their mission is still critical for other victims, because every victim has their own story and they have individual needs."

Madsen's days are now spent fighting for other victims.

For South Carolina, the fight against human trafficking in South Carolina has really just begun.

"In South Carolina, where agriculture is a predominant trade, you have a lot of labor trafficking going on, a lot of migrant workers who don't even speak English and may not be here legally," Wilson said. "And of course they're outside the system and they don't want to be seen by the system, so they're obviously going to be easy prey for people that want to traffic them for their labor services."

Houbion has been working to push a new bill through the state legislature, the Safe Harbor For Exploited Minors Act. It seeks to protect the identity of minor victims and grants them access to services and benefits. Minors arrested for prostitution, drug possession, loitering, among other charges, will receive immunity if they are victims of human trafficking.

On Wednesday night, the bill passed unanimously through the state House. It now has to pass the Senate before being signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley.

After tackling the Safe Harbor Act, Houbion said her next fight is teaching young students.

"We'd like to think we want to prevent victims, but by preventing the situation we will prevent victims," she said. "This goes to getting curriculum in schools."

The truth is, human trafficking is happening in cities and towns right under people's noses.

"You need to understand that everyone has witnessed human trafficking at one point in their life. You just didn't know you were looking at it," Wilson said.

It will take citizens stepping in and caring to make a change.

"If you want to know more about human trafficking- if you want our experts on human trafficking to come into your school, or to your rotary club, or your civic group, or your house and you want to have a neighborhood house party where you invite," Wilson added. "We can come in and educate people on the scope and the complexity of this crime and we can actually show you the evidence that this is really going on in your local community."

To request someone from the Attorney General's office to speak, visit this website.

"Modern-day slavery - I'm going to say it again - modern-day slavery is very much alive in South Carolina," Wilson said. "People are slaves and they are being sold like commodities on the market for profit by traffickers."

Anyone who was a victim or knows someone who was a victim of human trafficking is encouraged to contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

To learn more about how the state of South Carolina is looking to combat human trafficking, read the 2015 South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force Annual Report below:

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