Sex slavery, human trafficking 'alive and well' in SC - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Sex slavery, human trafficking 'alive and well' in SC

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

Across the world, in a Russian town known for three things -- guns, beer, and vodka, according to victims advocate Olga Phoenix -- a 12-year-old Phoenix lived through war, the Soviet Union's collapse, and a unpredictably violent childhood.

"My childhood memories are not about going to school," said Phoenix. "They're about beatings, and rape and almost murder. We wouldn't walk on the road, but we would walk like behind the trees because cars would be stopping all the time on the road and women would be thrown into the cars and you'd never see them again. Or you see them dead somewhere in a ditch

As an orphan, Phoenix and her friends would often run away to Moscow. Although she always returned by the end of summer, many of her friends had a hard time surviving on the cold streets of Russia's capital city.

"Julia came back. She had a very pronounced limp. She couldn't work anymore. She was disfigured because of the beating and broken bones. She was a different person who was completely broken. And she wasn't there anymore. What happened was they worked the streets of Moscow. They had a pimp, they couldn't leave the pimp. They were beaten, branded," said Phoenix.

According to the FBI, there are hundreds of thousands of American children being exploited today just like Julia.

"It is not happening in third-world countries with people who don't speak our language. It happens to regular people. It happens to people living across the street from you," said South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson. "You just don't know it."

Statistics show there are an estimated 150,000 sex trafficking victims in the United States. They are usually between 12 and 14 years old and live for just 7 years.

These victims are, on average, sold between 10 and 15 times a day for at least 6 days a week.

Only one to two percent of these victims are rescued.

"If you look at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there's probably 5,200 to 5,500 kids at a time that are missing that are expected to be in to prostitution," said FBI special agent David Thomas.

"People seem to think slavery has went away, but unfortunately it didn't," said Thomas. "It's still alive and well."

Thomas says it's alive and well in South Carolina because, according to him, the state is a "target-rich environment."

"We have a huge agricultural industry, and that industry kind of lends itself to that kind of activity," said Thomas. "We have tourism, a very large tourism industry; you look at Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, and Charleston."

The state has not turned a blind eye to the activity. Attorney General Wilson says the state knows it goes on in the coastal areas and the Midlands.

The reach of traffickers extends beyond the sex trade. Roughly 20 percent of those trafficked are undocumented workers used for hard labor in South Carolina's agricultural and tourism industries.

"They were victims because they were misled into believing that they would achieve their dreams. Possibly that they will be able to support their families. They were stripped of all their rights, all their documents, and then held hostage pretty much with fear and threat by their traffickers," said Bredrija Jazic with Lutheran Family Services.

Fear and language barriers can keep victims from coming forward.

"One of the stories that is, unfortunately, very common is we receive a call and the victim is afraid to say where they are and who holds them, but she has a need to say she is a victim and she is held against her will," said Jazic. "And when the case worker tried to pry more info and call law enforcement, she hung up the phone.

"Of course, you wonder what happened next. Did they hang up because someone walked in the room?"

The FBI has multiple branches dedicated to identifying and rescuing children featured online.

"We will constantly look and we have analysts who will look at some of those advertisements and try to figure out, does this person look like they're young? That they're underage? And we'll go out and we'll target those in some undercover operations and other things," said Agent Thomas.

State leaders, lead by Wilson's office, are working to strengthen human trafficking penalties while also offering more options for victims.

"We want to be able to give the State Grand Jury the jurisdiction to be able to investigate human trafficking crimes, said Wilson. "With the Grand Jury, the Grand Jury has the ability to go farther and deeper as an investigative mechanism than conventional law enforcement mechanisms. To subpoena witnesses, to protect those witnesses, their secrecy, you know, and allowing them to speak without fear of being killed, by, say, a mobster, or a gang member."

But how do you stop a problem that's as old as mankind itself? Victims advocates say keep your eyes open for the signs.

"If you see a lot of traffic in the house, people coming in and leaving. Different people coming and leaving. If you see the blinds are always shut. If you hear things that are not common that you may not feel comfortable about, I would call. It's better to call than find out next day that something was wrong," said Phoenix.

Phoenix continues to travel to Russia every year as a victims advocate. She returns to the train station she and her friends once used as an escape to Moscow.

"At the train station, there are the cheapest prostitutes you can find. And I look in their faces sometimes, because I want to find my friend. And if she's alive, chances are she's living this kind of life," said Phoenix.

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