It’s National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month, so Brook Burris joins the podcast to talk about what we can do to combat the crime of human trafficking in the United States and how to fight for women and girls who are victimized in this way. 

Brooke Burris is East Coast Regional Director of the Lynch Foundation for Children and the Founder and Chair of the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force where they address and prevent human trafficking and provide a scalable model that communities can utilize across the Nation. Brooke clerked at the South Carolina Supreme Court for the Chief Counsel and was first introduced to the human trafficking epidemic as a law clerk at the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Criminal Prosecution Division under Deputy Attorney General Heather Weiss.


Beverly: And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg, and on today’s episode, Brooke Burris joins us to highlight the ongoing problem of human trafficking within the United States. It’s an issue that has gained national attention in the past few years and since it is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we wanted to learn about the efforts to combat this crime and what we can all do to fight for women who are victimized in this way.

Before we bring Brooke on, just a little about her, she is the East Coast Regional Director of the Lynch Foundation for Children and the founder and chair of the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force, where they address and prevent human trafficking and provide a scalable model that communities can utilize across the nation. Brooke clerked at South Carolina Supreme Court for the Chief Counsel and was first introduced to human trafficking as a law clerk at the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office of Criminal Prosecution division under Deputy Attorney General, Heather Weiss. In 2013, Brooke was also Miss South Carolina and Miss America’s Miss Congeniality. Brooke, thank you for joining us.

Brooke: Thank you so much Beverly. I’m really happy to be here. I appreciate y’all highlighting this issue.

Beverly:  Absolutely, and I think we would want to start with just how big of an issue this is and what motivated you to get involved. So first of all, even though this has received more national media attention about the issue of human trafficking within the United States, can you give us just a summary of where we are as a country and also why you decided to make this your life’s work, to help women and even young boys who find themselves in this situation.

Brooke:  Yes, there are so many different stats and measures on this. Some of it’s money, some of it’s the number of victims identified. It’s really hard to get some of the numbers because victims oftentimes don’t self-identify. It’s a newer crime in some states. In South Carolina, it’s only been a crime since 2012. And then it’s only been a part of the definition of sexual abuse and neglect in our state since 2018, so mandated reporters weren’t required to identify it or be trained on it. And like I said, a lot of the victims don’t self-identify because of the manipulation, the coercion, and the threats that are involved with the nature of the crime. The numbers depending on the studies are, it’s a large spectrum, going from 300,000 just young Americans, some more are kids and in the country up to, you see some studies with over a million victims just in our nation. On the money side, studies show that the US is the highest consumer, or US citizens globally, for trafficking on the demand and the buyer side.

And it’s a multibillion dollar underground industry in the US, right under drugs. And in some ways it’s a much lower risk crime than drugs, because again, these victims don’t self-identify and a lot of prosecutors need victims to testify in order to bring a successful case. So it’s definitely an issue, and the Trump administration has shown amazing leadership in addressing and prioritizing it. Ivanka Trump has been an incredible leader and voice for a lot of these victims who don’t have voices, so we’re really thankful for that. Yeah, I got involved a lot because I was clerking at the South Carolina Attorney General’s office a few months after it became a crime in South Carolina and was put on a case to listen to jail calls from a pimp who was speaking to his “girlfriend”, or the woman he was victimizing, telling her how much she needed to make in order to get him out of jail. And the next call was to his mother who was also in on it, manipulating this young woman to sell herself to make money for him.

So that’s how I got introduced to it. And really I grew up with thinking that and believing that sex is a precious relationship, that love is patient and purity is powerful and it’s priceless. So just to see that, the commercialization of sex, really, which is so pervasive in our culture and to see it, not firsthand, but in that case, really stuck with me. And then I was a guardian ad litem and saw the at-risk youth who are in the foster care system, which has been very high-risk constituency for falling into this commercialization of sex. So that’s how I got into it and really where we’re at.

Beverly:  And it’s really easier talking about, I think, when one first learns about how pervasive it is. And you gave a good overview of how much of a problem this is even in the United States, as you said. It’s people, citizens of the United States, who are the purchasers of so many of these young victims. I think the question then is, why do we see this so much? Do you think that social media, the internet, all of that has allowed it to fester even more because there is more communication through back channels? Is social media and the internet a big reason why we’ve seen an increase in this?

Brooke:  You hit it on the head. Yes. You could go so many different routes. First off, in terms of the accessibility that technology and social media gives to different traffickers, they have so much more access to different people to groom. It’s easier to groom them, easier to recruit different victims, make relationships with different people. And technology crosses socioeconomic barriers, so that’s a huge part of it. It’s all done very secretly and casually. A parent can be in the same room as their daughter or son who can be talking with strangers who neither of them really know and discussing intimate issues.

Another thing having to do with technology is pornography, which I think is truly underlying a lot of the way that our culture views sex and is kind of teaching some young people today what they think sex is supposed to be. Some say that porn sites received more regular traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined each month, and so I always try to encourage parents to please be aware of what kind of cyber activity your kids are doing and being a part of. So I think that’s definitely exacerbating it. I’ve spoken with lots of victims who will say they have customers who bring in different videos, different pornographic videos saying, “This is what I want us to do.” So it’s definitely related to all of this and a lot of people are-

Beverly:  And I would want it [crosstalk 00:08:55]. Yeah. And I want to jump in here. You’ve given two examples already. One is the risks that children in foster care face in this area, but then you brought up another example, which is a child who has parents, maybe in an affluent home, you wouldn’t think that this child would be a potential victim of sexual trafficking, but the avenue of the internet and how we can communicate these days can make that child a victim. So for parents out there especially, can you expand on that? They may not think that their child is involved in any type of thing that would lead to this, but what do parents need to know and be aware of when it comes to their children? Because I think this is one of those issues where we think it happens to someone else. It doesn’t happen to our own kids, it happens to other people’s kids. What do you have to say on that?

Brooke:  Right. Yes. Parents just need to be proactive and feel the responsibility, take on the responsibility of being parents. You’re probably paying for that phone, you are in charge. And really ask their kids, tell them about how the grooming can occur or it’s so easy on social media for people to have multiple identities. Show a picture like you’re a 15 year old guy and really you’re a 40 year old guy. And also really have their kids think, just like the name of your podcast, that maybe this video took five minutes to make, but it will last for years and to really have a longterm view on their decisions. There are multiple National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that’s a great resource of different apps that parents can put on their phone plan to measure and parent, I guess, social media behavior of their kids. So that’s what I’d say is a concrete resource to go to.

Beverly:  And I want to talk about the work that you’re specifically doing in the state of South Carolina, so of course you are bringing attention to this problem. So you’re out there and speaking on it, but you also work, as you say, with a scalable model that communities can utilize. How is it that communities can fight this together? I’m assuming it involves the involvement of law enforcement and working directly with them, correct?

Brooke:  Yes, very much so. If we support law enforcement well, this issue will be much more taken care of. It’s hard for them to give resources to it sometimes because they’re so tapped out. So we very much rely on strong partnerships with law enforcement, and traffickers will use the different law enforcement jurisdictions and the challenge of information sharing to their benefit to travel around with different victims. Maybe they have a prostitution arrest, which is a misdemeanor, but they’re from a totally different state. Or they’re using technology to solicit and make these transactions, make these dates, “dates”, and all of a sudden it can really be a federal crime rather than just a local misdemeanor.

So law enforcement is crucial to addressing this. In 2018 the US Department of State Trafficking and Persons Report, their main thesis focused on the fact that human trafficking is a global problem, solved on a local level a lot, because of these cases will begin on a kind of misdemeanor level with a prostitution arrest or a runaway status, truancy offense. So the different agencies need to work together.

And that’s what we, under the leadership of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, have been working to create a coordinated community response. And that’s multidisciplinary, working with creating public-private partnerships with nonprofits and different government agencies to address this. We’ll get asked by even the US Attorney’s office or different law enforcement entities to provide services for victims that they may not have budget for and they’ll need that victim later to testify in order to bring a successful case. So that’s kind of an on the ground, just small example of how these partnerships, multidisciplinary, are required almost for the success of addressing this or not.

Beverly:  And you mentioned legislation and how legislation was introduced and passed in South Carolina. There’s also, as you were saying, the federal aspect to this and you said that the Trump administration has been instrumental in raising this issue and talking about it. Do you also find that something like the Violence Against Women Act, something that has been put forward by Senator Joni Ernst, is an important thing? This is the piece of legislation that highlights new threats to young women and girls such as human trafficking and other issues. Is it important for there to be changes in the federal law as well to address this?

Brooke:  I’m so glad you brought that up, Beverly. Yes. Her reauthorization act, Senator Ernst’s reauthorization act is very … It seems like it would be almost a no-brainer. I mean, just the fact that she would expand the definition of sexual assault to include human trafficking on a statewide level, expanding the definition of child abuse and neglect to include trafficking has changed the trajectory of our state in terms of identifying it and putting resources toward it. And sexual assault is almost a similar or parallel definition for adults. And so if this was changed, it would open up new resources, new training, new responsibilities for different organizations around the nation who are already addressing this.

I think it’s a brilliant and simple measure to add and human trafficking should definitely be in this context of violence against women. Just hearing some of the stories of the exploitation that happens to a lot of these victims, it’s unfortunately very, very, very much that under this. She also includes pornography in the act, which is also extremely relevant, and has a lot of support for law enforcement in addressing this. So I’m very supportive of that and think that it would trickle down to even have local ramifications that are very positive.

Beverly:  And speaking of the victims themselves, how do you assist victims and, let’s say the person who’s been victimizing them is caught, they’re out of the trafficking itself. How do you help somebody emotionally after that? Do you have programs that work with victims of human trafficking?

Brooke:  Yes, we do. We just received a federal grant from the Department of Justice actually to build up the services. So we, in our area, we didn’t really have much case management for adults, so we would get called and just have to scramble. We’re called by law enforcement or a homeless shelter who’s identified a victim and all of a sudden we’re just buying a hotel room and going to do an intake and just problem-solve with the case management. We’re really thankful again about public-private partnership, the federal government giving some moneys out to local nonprofits around the nation to build up those services.

But yes, it’s case by case. So every case, every person is different. Every need, all the needs are different. Almost all of them have legal needs, and a huge part of this is being trauma informed and really understanding the effects trauma has on the brain. And as you can imagine, these are some of the most traumatized victims in a very complex manner because it’s multiple sessions, use that word in a loose term, multiple encounters a night and every day along with the manipulation that goes with the trafficker.

Beverly:  Because I’m assuming a lot of these victims feel shame. I’m assuming they feel shame even though they shouldn’t, and part of that is also getting them to not blame themselves for what took place. I’m assuming that’s an aspect of it.

Brooke:  Very, very, very much so. Which makes it all the … It’s kind of another barrier of them to self-identify that this has been happening, because they’re usually manipulated and the thought that it’s their fault and their decision is just burned into their brain I guess as a control tactic, which is really a-

Beverly:  I’m also curious about the penalties that people get when they have victimized people in this way. What do we tend to see as a jail time, jail sentencing for people who have done this. And do you think that there are harsh enough penalties or we need to change some of our laws in reference to that as well?

Brooke:  Yes. Great question. It’s of course different in every state and then on the federal level as well. I think on average it’s around 30 years. If there’s a child involved it can be more, and a lot of times there are multiple victims involved so the charges add up and they’re in there for life. We have a victim who testified and her trafficker had a sentence of 15 years and so that will end in about four years and she still thinks about it, about what will happen. So definitely that’s an empowering thing for them to be able to testify. That’s also very scary, which goes back to why it’s so important to have some of these services, but increasing the laws and increasing the tools for law enforcement to address this is crucial.

And also addressing the buyer is crucial. South Carolina has the third lowest penalty in the nation for buyers of sex, and there’s really nothing on the books federally to address the demand. So that’s something I’ve looked into a little bit, just looking at the crime more from an economic perspective rather than a criminal, like an economic violation rather than a criminal violation because the standard of proof is lower and you could maybe go after someone’s pockets rather than then jail time. If we don’t address the demand, then the market incentive won’t really change, and the trafficking will always be an option. Just like drug trafficking can be so lucrative, human trafficking can be extremely lucrative, which is why it’s also extremely important to look at the demand side of this from a legal perspective.

Beverly:  And final question for you. As we said already that this is the Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we also have the Super Bowl, which is a little over a week away, and the Super Bowl sadly does seem to be a magnet for human trafficking. I think as we hear about all of this, it makes us ask ourselves, “What can we do?” So obviously, as you’re mentioning, as a parent you want to make sure that your child through social media or apps or the internet knows what’s a danger and monitor that for them, but how do we help victims? What is it that you recommend that we can do?

Brooke:  Thanks so much for asking that. Yes, I mean first, like you said, kind of take care of your own and definitely talk to your kids about their rights and about why safety and sexual health is so important. Then I’d say, there may be a local task force in your area. That’s why the Department of State really said it’s a global problem solved on a local level. When local citizens really get involved, you can really engage in a meaningful measurable manner, so I would look to see if there is a local task force in your area. Shared Hope International is a great nonprofit that’s looking at this on a national level and very involved in legislation if anyone is interested in policy on a state or federal level.

And yes, a lot of different big events, like the Bike Week in Myrtle Beach in South Carolina is kind of our Super Bowl in terms of when we really try to raise awareness for the issue in our state and really support law enforcement. So supporting those on the front lines, law enforcement and social workers, or thinking about volunteering as a guardian ad litem for foster youth would be some other ways to get involved too.

Beverly:  Well Brooke, we so appreciate you coming on and sharing what your organization, the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force, is doing and for your work on this issue personally as well. We thank you so much for your time today.

Brooke:  Beverly, thank you. And thank you for the whole concept of She Thinks, because it’s a really powerful thing when we think for ourselves. So thank you so very much.

Beverly:  Well thank you and thank you all for joining us. Before you go, I wanted to let you know of a great podcast you should subscribe to in addition to She Thinks. It’s called Problematic Women, and it’s hosted by Kelsey Bolar and Lauren Evans, where they both sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative-leaning or problematic women. That is, women whose views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so-called feminist left. Every Thursday, hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics by searching for Problematic Women wherever you get your podcasts.

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