Non-profit, task force against labor and sex trafficking

Sexual abuse was so rampant when Kat Wehunt was growing up in Florida that she thought it happened in every family. Then a relative started selling her for sex. And then he got her on drugs and pimped her to golfers at a club where he worked.

The last time Wehunt, now 28, saw the man, she was 17. But even today, she still looks back.


Wehunt is now the executive director of The Formation Project, a Charleston County nonprofit that advocates for and helps victims of human trafficking, a term that includes labor slavery as well as sexual abuse.

Wehunt says memories of his own trauma fuel his advocacy. Her organization has been in existence for three years and has helped around 100 women and men escape their abusers, find jobs and find housing. The group may begin working with some victims at age 17 to prepare them for independence.

“Eighty percent of our survivors are drug and alcohol free and all of our survivors have a safe place to live,” she said in a recent interview.

The working group will meet on October 28

Wehunt says it takes coordination for those kinds of results. In the Lowcountry, many groups are working together in a renewed fight against the crime of human trafficking.

The Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force, appointed for the region by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, will meet at 10 a.m. on Oct. 28 in North Charleston to bolster prosecutions and advocate for changes of state law. Among the proposals he is considering is to redefine the terms and provide penalties for three separate parties:

  • Commercial sex service providers, currently referred to as “prostitutes” in the law;
  • Sex trade lawyers or sex buyers; and
  • Facilitators of the sex trade, which include those who advertise a “prostitute” or a negligent hotel owner who turns a blind eye to sex trafficking in his establishment.

In addition, the task force calls for new laws to prosecute those who post photos or “revenge porn” – which are often used by traffickers to blackmail victims.

Another proposal seeks to require electronic devices such as laptops, phones and tablets to be sold with existing filters for explicit content in the “on” position, rather than the current default position that they are off.

Brooke Burris of Mount Pleasant is co-chair and co-founder of the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force, which covers Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. The task force, launched in 2018, is supported by the Lincoln Tubman Foundation, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit. Burris said prosecutions needed to increase but law enforcement needed more resources.

She recalled a case in the upstate in 2017 when a teenage girl walked in and out of the child welfare system because she was sold for sex by her mother. When the girl turned 18, Burris said she moved back to a mother who sometimes had her sleep in a doghouse.

“They (law enforcement) never made any progress in investigating and charging the mother and this is a clear case of a horrific story that happened in our state,” Burris said.

More tracking also wanted

The Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center in Charleston wants to prevent the lack of follow-up by law enforcement by focusing on the team approach to rescuing child victims, said Rachael Garrett, director of community programs for the organization. . The organization recently received a third grant from the US Department of Justice, this time for over $700,000.

Garrett said his system offered a more comprehensive approach.

“The DSS (SC’s Department of Social Services) could refer a case to our program…and then we would ask our coordinator to work with all the different partners involved.

Garrett said that could include a school and a therapist — and would certainly include law enforcement.

Why? Because “we are talking about a crime that has been committed,” she said.

Protect yourself from predators

Prosecutions never took place for Wehunt, director of The Formation Project. She said the family member who trafficked her was never charged after she reported him.

But as a story on The Formation Project’s website illustrates, the organization tries to keep predators at bay.

The account of a photo of a group of elephants points out that when an elephant gives birth, other female elephants come into “formation”, forming a circle around the mother elephant, protecting both the mother and the baby of predators.

Wehunt said that’s what The Formation Project does every day with strategies like peer support groups.

“I wanted to make sure I built a survivor-led organization so they could have a seat at the table,” Wehunt said. “Survivors really drive our program.”

Wehunt said one of those survivors would soon join the nonprofit’s paid staff. According to The Formation Project website, after a mother elephant gives birth, all female elephants raise their proboscis and cheat – loudly.

HOW TO GET HELP OR REPORT TRAFFICKING: Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. The hotline is confidential and open 24/7.

WORKING GROUP MEETING: 10-11:30 a.m., 28 October. Charleston County Government, Room C-230, 4045 Bridgeview Drive, North Charleston.

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About Debra D. Johnson

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