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When looking at human trafficking cases, law enforcement, judges, and the judicial branch must have a trauma-informed methodology.

This is part two of our blog series on understanding human trafficking. If you missed part one, read it here.

For some expert advice on how law enforcement investigates trafficking and the importance of trauma-informed education catered to human trafficking victimization, Darkness to Light Judicial and Legal Content Specialist Judge Kristi Harrington (Ret.) interviewed Detective Charlie Benton with the North Charleston Police Department. Detective Benton founded the department’s Human Trafficking Unit.

Honorable Kristi Harrington (KH): In your eight-year career in law enforcement, you have been involved with and investigated a wide variety of crimes. Is your approach different when investigating human trafficking charges?

Detective Benton (DB): Human trafficking cases are very different from other “major crimes” such as murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, and sexual assault. For example, in an attempted murder case there will typically be one crime scene, one suspect, one victim, and a handful of witnesses. The crime scene will need to be processed. The victim and witnesses will need to be interviewed about an event (the attempted murder) that took place in a matter of seconds. Some historical information about the victim and possible suspect will need to be gathered. The interviews will likely last from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the circumstances.

In a human trafficking case, typically there are multiple victims, multiple suspects, multiple crime scenes spread across multiple jurisdictions (including state lines), and the crime itself lasts in duration from days, weeks, months, to possibly even years. The victims don’t often self-identify, especially not upon initial contact with law enforcement, and require very specific and focused care focusing on human trafficking victimization in order to get victims to a place where they are willing and/or able to disclose about their victimization.

KH: Has it been your experience that the victims of trafficking may have had contact with law enforcement first as a suspect or defendant themselves, often being charged with a drug offense or with prostitution? Why wouldn’t the victim see that as an opportunity to disclose the victimization?

DB: In the same way that juries need to be educated on what human trafficking looks like versus the way it is portrayed in movies and on television, so too do law enforcement officers, attorneys, and judges. Human trafficking victims often appear in front of these stakeholders charged as “suspects” for crimes such as truancy, habitual runaway, prostitution, and drug possession.

It is incumbent upon each of us to educate ourselves on the signs of human trafficking so we can adequately recognize a potential victim and begin asking the necessary questions to determine if the person before us listed as “defendant” is a human trafficking victim.

KH: Current discussion has turned to improving victimology, which concentrates on improving the justice system’s response to reduce any further trauma to the victim when they are in the courtroom or justice system. Have you seen positive results or had a positive experience with a survivor when the judge was educated and aware of the signs of human trafficking?

DB: One instance that immediately comes to mind involves a young victim who had pending drug charges from a traffic stop when she was identified as a trafficking victim. Through interviews with her it became clear that the drugs belonged to her trafficker and he forced her to put them in her purse when the police pulled them over. Through the investigation we were able to establish her credibility. Once we had definitive evidence of her status as a trafficking victim and her truthfulness, we approached the judge, explained the victim’s status, and presented her statement about the drugs. The judge was more than happy to dismiss the charges against the victim, given the totality of the circumstances.

KH: What is the biggest challenge that prevents “best practice” handling of these cases?

DB: In law enforcement, we are used to having victims approach us to report being victimized. Human trafficking victims very rarely take proactive steps to self-report. The concept of proactively seeking out victims of a crime is foreign to most law enforcement officers. The controlling and manipulative nature of traffickers necessitates a willingness on law enforcement’s part to shirk the conventional thought process of reactive case acquisition and starting to proactively seek out those members of society who are being compelled to engage in commercial sex.

KH: What is the most positive thing that you’ve seen that’s helping the issue?

DB: More and more entities, from law enforcement agencies to judicial organizations to community service groups are requesting education on the topic of human trafficking. Facilities are opening to provide resources and support to victims of trafficking. Many, like Doors to Freedom, are taking a holistic approach and have become an amazing force for good in the fight against human trafficking.

KH: The National Institute of Justice reports that 70-90% of children who are sexually trafficked were sexually abused in a non-commercial manner prior to being trafficked. With statistics like these, it seems easy to get overwhelmed by the harsh realities. Based upon your experience, is there one small action that our community can do today that will prevent a child from the being victimized by a human trafficker?

DB: Make sure that the children around you understand you are someone who will listen to them if they ever want to talk about something that has happened to them. Children who are sexually abused go on to be trafficking victims in large part because the adults present in their lives during their sexual abuse never listened and/or never got them adequate treatment for the trauma they experienced, thus priming them for victimization by a trafficker later in life.

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At Darkness to Light, we understand the importance of trauma-informed education and training. We are in the process of designing training for law enforcement, attorneys, and judges that will address the common issues and concerns in the investigation, prosecution, and courtroom handling of child sexual abuse cases. Acknowledging the different challenges that these cases bring to a courtroom, an objective of this training is to assist law enforcement, attorneys, and judicial officers to identify the situation and, under the framework of the law, appropriately alleviate any negative impact upon the participants in the justice system. With our Judicial and Legal Content Specialist Judge Kristi Harrington (Ret.) at the helm of this new training, those who are involved in the justice system will experience a positive exchange due to shared experience in a protected space to engage in dynamic and meaningful dialogue about child sexual abuse. Stay tuned for updates on this exciting new training!

Detective Charlie Benton, Jr. works as a detective with the North Charleston Police Department and founded the department’s Human Trafficking Unit. He is also assigned as a task force officer with the ATF’s violent crimes task force. In 2017 he earned the United States Attorney’s Award for his work in bringing down a 10-defendant human trafficking conspiracy that operated in 11 states between 2005 and 2016 and involved over 100 victims. Prior to founding the Human Trafficking Unit in 2015, he worked as a special victims detective, a property crimes detective, and a patrol officer. Charlie earned a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Charleston Southern University where he became inducted into Alpha Phi Sigma, a national criminal justice honor society. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Experimental Psychology from the University of South Carolina. Charlie taught as an adjunct professor in criminal justice at Shorter University. He presently serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Doors to Freedom, a non-profit that provides comprehensive services to victims of human trafficking. Charlie also served as the law enforcement representative on the Lowcountry Children Center’s Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) Workgroup, whose purpose was establishing a multi-disciplinary approach to identifying victims and perpetrators of human trafficking and coordinating victim services while preserving the integrity of the criminal investigation.

Hon. Kristi Harrington (Ret.) is the current Judicial and Legal Content Specialist with Darkness to Light. She retired from the South Carolina Circuit Court bench after serving two terms. Judge Harrington’s career has been focused on the issues facing women and children in the justice system, having served on the Children’s Justice Task Force and the Governor’s Task Force for Violence Against Women. Judge Harrington has also taught locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. She is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Charleston School of Law where she teaches a variety of classes. She is currently serving on the Faculty Council of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, where is also an adjunct professor. In 2016, Judge Harrington traveled to India as a Fulbright Scholar Specialist to Symbiosis Law College and was honored to present to Indian judges at the Maharashtra Judicial Academy. During her time in India, Judge Harrington lectured at five law schools and was the keynote speaker at an International Victims Rights Conference in Goa. 


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