‘The devil you know.’ SC residents are selling family members into the sex trade

A Richland County woman told her 13-year-old sister and her friend they were attending a birthday party one Saturday night in 2016. Instead, the woman lured the teen girls into a trap, according to police reports, court records and interviews with law enforcement.

The woman delivered her sister and friend to Quincy Brian Bright in north Columbia. He told the girls he had invited men over to have sex with them. The men were paying customers, he told them.

The girls were separated, and the 15-year-old friend was taken to a room with a man she had never seen before. He raped her, according to the police report. But it wasn’t over. 

She was taken to another room, where a second man raped her. Afterward, she was taken to another room, where a third man forced her to perform a sex act. Court documents show she, and the woman’s little sister, became victims of sex trafficking that night.

Data suggests South Carolina is grappling with one of the most horrendous crimes imaginable — familial trafficking. People are introducing or selling their family members into the sex trade. The reason why it happens is unclear, but officials who work the cases point to heroin, crack and opiate addictions.

In 2016, a family member was the most commonly reported relationship between a victim and trafficker or recruiter, according to a report from the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. That same year, one out of every 20 known cases of someone recruiting a family member happened in South Carolina, according to national data from the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, a global data hub of human trafficking.

Familial trafficking is often misidentified as child abuse, rape or incest, and most records aren’t available to the public — due to the nature of the crime and the family dynamic — making it nearly impossible for the public to understand the magnitude. But it’s happening in nearly every corner of South Carolina, according to law enforcement and victims’ advocates. Consider:

  • A woman allowed her male roommate to have sex with her 13-year-old daughter in exchange for a reduction in rent on their Greenville County apartment in 2017.

  • A woman allowed her male boss to have sex with her 16-year-old daughter in exchange for money in Berkeley County in 2017.

  • A state prosecutor met with a group of children earlier this year who were likely trafficked by family members in Dillon County, but declined to comment further because it’s an active investigation. 

“There’s this idea that human trafficking is all about pimps that are sending children out to make money, but this is actually happening within households. This can happen in any community,” said Shauna Galloway-Williams, executive director of the Julie Valentine Center, a child abuse and sexual assault recovery center that serves Greenville and Pickens counties. The center has provided services to a number of people who were trafficked by family members, including three survivors in the past month.

The number of reported cases of familial trafficking dropped in 2017 — from 30 to 12 — but law enforcement and advocates say many more of these crimes go unreported every year.

Kids know that reporting these crimes could break up the family. And most of the time, they just want to go home, said Horry County Family Court Judge Melissa Buckhannon.

“Because it’s like the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know,” she said.

‘WHERE CAN THIS CHILD GO TO BE SAFE?’

There was never a birthday party that Saturday night, and the 15-year-old girl’s mother called the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to report what happened the following Monday. Bright, now 32, was arrested on two counts of trafficking in persons, drug possession and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Quincy Brian Bright S.C. Department of Corrections

Prosecutors dropped the trafficking and drug charges in exchange for a guilty plea in contributing to the delinquency of a minor, court records show. He was given a 3-year suspended prison sentence, with 2.5 years of probation. He could not be reached for comment.

The woman who allegedly lured her sister and her friend into a trap was also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but the case is still pending in court. The State is not identifying this woman because of her relationship to a victim of sexual assault, keeping with policy of not naming victims in these crimes.

It’s unclear if drugs played a role in this case of familial trafficking, but most of the time, that’s the driving force, according to several members of law enforcement and state officials.

“I see it most with a drug addiction, where the parent is so desperate for drugs that they’re exchanging their child,” said Heather Weiss, a supervising prosecutor in the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. “It always seems so much more disturbing because you think where can this child go to be safe?”

And it’s happening more often than people realize. Some children may not have the words to describe what’s happening. Others could be paralyzed by confusion and distrust.

“This is the person I’m supposed to go to when I’m hurt or scared, and this is the same person who is hurting me,” said Galloway-Williams, the licensed professional counselor with Julie Valentine Center. “It becomes much more complex.”

A child can both love someone who engages in this behavior but dislike what they’re doing, she added. And in some cases, adults tell children what could happen if the secret gets out, using the relationship as leverage.

“They may be afraid of what’s going to happen to them or someone they love, especially if it’s a family member who is a sole provider within the family,” Galloway-Williams said. “They may lose the roof over their head. They may have to move out of the home. Someone else may have to move out of the home. That’s an incredible weight and burden for a child to have to carry.”

A man and a woman were arrested Thursday after they decided to flag down a South Carolina state trooper to settle a dispute over money allegedly used for prostitution. OBSERVER FILE ART

THE NUMBER OF CHILDREN IS GROWING

When law enforcement is able to rescue a child from that environment, more tools are available than before.

Police now have penalties for traffickers and protections for victims, and the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force has embarked on a statewide education campaign. But some say the most impact change came last year, when lawmakers required the S.C. Department of Social Services to get involved if children are suspected victims of sex trafficking. 

Police can now take the child into emergency protective custody, and Social Services will conduct an investigation to find out if the family is involved. If they find involvement, the agency can move to terminate parental rights, said Gwynne Goodlett, program manager of child health and well-being for Social Services.

In a matter of months, state agencies have identified about 50 children who are potential victims of sex trafficking, according to Kathryn Moorehead, head of the Human Trafficking Task Force. It’s unclear how many of those cases include family members, but Social Services has 45 days to investigate each case.

Meanwhile, the agency has to find a safe place to keep the child temporarily, and the number of children coming into custody is outpacing the space available.

South Carolina only has one emergency intake shelter designed and staffed to handle victims, so foster families and group homes are often used to temporarily house children, Goodlet said. There are 2,600 foster families, and the number of available beds is constantly changing.

“We need far more foster parents than we have right now,” Goodlett said. “We’ve had an uptick in the number of children coming into care,” but the growth of foster parents hasn’t been able to keep up.

And if nothing changes, it could lead to re-victimization.

Andrea, who chose to be identified by another name, became a sex trafficking victim at a young age and found herself trapped in the lifestyle. Gavin McIntyre THE STATE

‘I DID IT BECAUSE SHE IS MY SISTER’

Sometimes familial trafficking can be subtle. 

Andrea was unwittingly introduced to the sex trade by her sister, who is three years older. Growing up, Andrea’s parents had a rule for the girls: The older wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without taking the younger.

Looking back on her childhood in Charleston, Andrea remembers tagging along with her older sister, sitting alone in one room while her sister got high and had sex in another. Years later, Andrea found out that her 17-year-old sister was involved with a man who posted pictures of her in online advertisements and facilitated sexual encounters with paying customers.

“It was kind of normal. That’s what my sister did and I looked up to her,” said Andrea, who is now 30. The State agreed to not use her real name.

“She always took me around to the people she hung around with, and they all did it. Everyone knew me because of her.”

And that’s how Andrea was introduced to the lifestyle. She initially viewed the men her sister worked for as managers of an escort service — reputable business men. Then came the pain pills, crack cocaine, meth and heroin. Anything that could make her numb, she ingested it, she said.

But her life started to spiral out of control. And she found herself trapped for 10 years in an endless cycle of chasing a high and having sex to pay for it.

“For so long, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I wanted. All I did was use drugs and have sex,” Andrea said. “I had no idea who I am and I’m starting to figure it out.”

“I’m happy now, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happy. I’m starting to love myself,” she said. “Everything is kind of falling into place. … I’m starting to see the progress that I’m making now and it’s really cool.”

She still talks to her sister, who now lives in Georgia and is still using drugs. Andrea said she has tried to talk to her about getting help, but she isn’t ready for it. You have to want it, otherwise you’ll just fall right back into the old habits, she said. But she loves her sister and doesn’t blame her for introducing her to this lifestyle.

“She didn’t force me to do it. I did it because she is my sister,” she said. 

Andrea knows her path to recovery will be a journey, taken one day at a time. But the future is bright.

“I never wanted to grow old before,” she said. “But I feel like this is the beginning of my life. I’m a little set back further than some people are. But I feel like everything is just beginning. I want to go back to school and have a family one day. I want what everyone else has.”

HOW TO IDENTIFY FAMILIAL TRAFFICKING

Some children may not show any outward signs of abuse, said Shauna Galloway-Williams, executive director of the Julie Valentine Center, a Greenville nonprofit that helps child abuse survivors. For some children, there’s a lot of guilt, shame and fear associated with this behavior, and it may be internalized.

But for other children, it’s like flipping a light switch, Galloway-Williams said. There is an immediate, drastic change in behavior. A fun-loving child could become withdrawn and isolated overnight. 

The biggest red flag is when a child claims to have been abused or alludes to abuse at home. That should always be taken seriously, Galloway-Williams said. Other red flags include sexual acting out — a child attempting sexual activity with another child without consent or sexually acting on inanimate objects.

“Often times these things are hiding in plain sight,” Galloway-Williams said, adding that the abusers are often right under everyone’s nose. “Someone can be a really, really good person, doing great work and doing good things, and at the same time can be abusing a child.”

If child abuse or trafficking is suspected, contact local law enforcement. Other places to also report information:

  • National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

  • S.C. Department of Social Services at 1-888-CARE4US or 1-888-227-3487.

Brooke Burris