The sexual abuse was so prevalent when Kat Wehunt was growing up in Florida that she thought it happened in all families. Then a relative began to sell her for sex. And then he made her take 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’s always looking back.
Wehunt is now the executive director of The Formation Project, a Charleston County nonprofit that advocates and assists victims of human trafficking, a term that includes labor slavery as well as sexual abuse.
Wehunt says memories about her own trauma fuels her advocacy. Her organization is three years old and has helped about 100 women and men escape from their abusers, get jobs and find housing. The group can begin to work with some victims at age 17 to prepare them for independence.
“Eighty percent of our survivors are substance- and alcohol-free and all of our survivors have a safe place to live,” she said in a recent interview.
Task force to meet Oct. 28
Wehunt says it takes coordination for these kinds of results. In the Lowcountry, there are numerous groups 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 10 a.m. Oct. 28 in North Charleston to boost prosecutions and advocate for changes to state law. Among the proposals it is considering is to redefine terms and provide penalties for three distinct parties:
- Providers of commercial sex, currently called “prostitutes” in the law;
- Solicitors of commercial sex, or sex buyers; and
- Facilitators of commercial sex, which includes those who advertise a “prostitute” or a negligent hotel owner who turns a blind eye to sex trafficking at his establishment.
In addition, the task force is calling 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 like laptops, phones and tablets to be sold with existing filters for explicit content in the “on” position, rather than the current default of them being off.
Brooke Burris of Mount Pleasant is the co-chair and co-founder of Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force which covers Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. The task force, started in 2018, is supported by the Lincoln Tubman Foundation, a nonprofit based in Mount Pleasant. Burris said prosecution needs to increase but law enforcement needs more resources.
She recalled an Upstate case in 2017 when a teenager was in and out of the child protective system because she had been sold for sex by her mother. When the girl turned 18, Burris said she returned to a mother who reportedly sometimes made her sleep in a doghouse.
“They (law enforcement) never made any headway on investigating and charging the mother and that’s a clear case of a horrendous story that happened in our state,” Burris said.
More follow-through also sought
The Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center in Charleston wants to prevent lack of follow-through by law enforcement by concentrating on the team approach to save child victims, said Rachael Garrett, the organization’s director of community programs. The organization recently received a third grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, this time for more than $700,000.
Garrett said its system offered a more comprehensive approach.
“DSS (the S.C. Department of Social Services) might refer a case to our program … and then we would have our coordinator work with all the different partners who are involved.
Garrett said that might include a school and a therapist — and would definitely include law enforcement.
Why? Because “we’re talking about a crime that’s been committed,” she said.
Keeping safe from predators
Prosecution never happened for Wehunt, director of The Formation Project. She said the family member who trafficked her was never charged after she reported him.
But as illustrated by a story on The Formation Project’s website, the organization is trying to keep predators at bay.
The narrative of a photo of a group of elephants outlines that when an elephant gives birth, other female elephants get in “formation,” making a circle around the mother elephant, protecting both mom and baby from predators.
Wehunt said that’s what The Formation Project does every day with strategies such as peer-support groups.
“I wanted to make sure I built an organization that was survivor-led so they can have a seat at the table,” Wehunt said. “The survivors are just really running our program.”
Wehunt said one of those survivors will soon join the paid staff of the nonprofit. According to The Formation Project’s website, after a mother elephant gives birth, all of the female elephants raise their trunks and trumpet — loudly.
HOW GET HELP OR REPORT TRAFFICKING: Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. The hotline is confidential and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
TASK FORCE MEETS: 10-11:30 a.m., Oct. 28. Charleston County Government, Room C-230, 4045 Bridgeview Drive, North Charleston.
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