SC Woman Devotes Life To Saving Sex Trafficking Victims. She Isn’t Always Successful

By Cody Dulaney The State (Columbia, S.C.)

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Beth Messick works on the front lines of human trafficking in South Carolina, serving as executive director of Jasmine Road, the state's first residential community for adult female survivors of sex trafficking.

GREENVILLE, S.C.

It doesn't matter the time of day. With a pen and paper nearby, Beth Messick spends her free time scrolling through dozens of online advertisements for sex in the Greenville area, jotting down the names and phone numbers listed under nude photos.

She has done it so often, she can recognize certain women by their tattoos and body shape. She focuses on girls who look young -- too young -- or those who seem desperate.

They are the troubled ones, the women who are likely "trapped in darkness," she said.

Sex trafficking is a growing problem in South Carolina. Pressure is increasing for police to address the underlying problem vs. making routine prostitution arrests. And advocates are working to fill the growing need for housing, therapy and the other needs of trafficking victims.

The difference between prostitution and sex trafficking comes down to choice -- prostitution involves willing participation; sex trafficking involves force, fraud or coercion, according to state law.

Messick works on the front lines of the problem in South Carolina, serving as executive director of Jasmine Road, the state's first residential community for adult female survivors of sex trafficking.

Each survivor in Jasmine Road has a personal story of how they met Messick. For a woman named Andrea, it started two years ago on Backpage.com.

Messick had been searching through sex ads for Andrea, who she believed was a victim of sex trafficking. The State is not using her real name in keeping with its policy of not naming victims of sexual assault.

Meanwhile, Andrea was across town at a friend's house, sitting on a couch and smoking crack cocaine, when a call came through on her cellphone. It had been provided to her by a man who dealt in drugs and flesh. She fumbled for the phone, pressed the green button and a woman's voice came through the speaker. That wasn't uncommon, Andrea said, but they were usually looking for sex.

This woman was offering a way out.

"She said, 'If you ever want help, you can call me,'" Andrea, now 30, recently recalled of her first conversation with Messick. "She had me crying on the phone. And then I hung up, got high and forgot about her.

"I didn't care about anything, other than using drugs and doing things to get more drugs," she said. "I didn't have anything else."

Such is the way of life for victims of sex trafficking, who are often brainwashed into thinking there is no way out. They become trapped in fear of a society that views them as drug addicts and prostitutes, when, in reality, the lifestyle is far more nuanced.

The vast majority of victims are women who have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their past, experts say.

For them, the normal rules of society don't exist. Relationships come with disturbing expectations. Drugs numb the pain and provide an escape from uncomfortable situations. And addiction is used by traffickers as a tool for compliance.

As of now, human trafficking data is scarce and incomplete. But the information that is available offers a small glimpse into this dark world.

In 2016, 56 cases of sex trafficking were reported statewide, according to an annual report produced by the S.C. Attorney General's Human Trafficking Task Force. The following year, there were 87 reported cases.

Messick is one of many people helping victims in South Carolina.

She never gave up on Andrea. It took several more phone calls, multiple visits to jail where Andrea was held 14 times on prostitution and drug charges, and two years of building a relationship before Andrea was ready to accept Messick's offer to help.

Today, Andrea is one of five women living and healing in Jasmine Road. It's a home in Greenville that offers a two-year program on recovery from trauma and addiction, and provides tools for a healthy future.

In the past five years, Messick has called phone numbers listed in online sex ads between 50 and 100 times. In the past year alone, she has visited at least 300 women in jail. That's how she identifies and connects with victims of sex trafficking.

But in the end, she knows she cannot save anyone. It's more about building relationships, taking them by the hand and showing them the way out, she said. Otherwise, they will go right back to the lifestyle.

"There's a fine line between me and those women," she said. "I could easily be in the same boat had I not received the resources I needed to help me heal."

'A place where God doesn't exist' Dirt footpaths connect cheap hotels to gas stations and restaurants, where potential customers, or "dates," sometimes gather. This is The District, a roughly 2-square-mile area off Augusta Road near Interstate 85 in Greenville.

It's a circuit many women walk day and night, stopping only for the next customer or the next hit of heroin or crack -- the two drugs of choice for many in this lifestyle because of their numbing effects.

"The drugs went hand-in-hand," Andrea said. "You need the drugs to do the date, but you need the date to get the drugs. It's just a really vicious cycle."

Most traffickers avoid this area, putting their victims in high-end hotels to cater to those who are most likely to buy sex -- 30 to 50-year-old white males with a family, college degree and disposable income, said Jonathan Bastoni, a human trafficking investigator with the Greenville County Sheriff's Office.

Even still, Messick views The District as ground zero for women who need the most help. They're the women who most people have given up on, and the type of victims who would never cooperate with a criminal investigation, she said.

"I've never been to a place where people walk for three days in a row without sleep. These people walk all day and work all night," Messick said. "It's a place where God doesn't exist."

This is where Messick's advocacy first began. She started by making trips to The District, each time bringing along about 20 hotdogs, a variety pack of Lays potato chips and bottles of Pepsi, Sprite and water to pass out to people she saw walking around.

She quickly learned, though, that giving food to people in The District was not the solution.

"Those were just tools for us to get near these women and hear their stories," Messick said.

In an effort to get closer, Messick founded Emerson's Rest in 2015. It was an organization dedicated to helping women in the Upstate find safety.

Through Emerson's Rest, as well as her certification to work with victims of trauma, Messick obtained professional visitation privileges from the Greenville County Detention Center, she said.

"That gave me an audience with them where they're away from their dope dealers, away from their traffickers and they were sober," she said.

It allowed her to get to the bottom of how they wound up on the streets.

"From doing all that, I learned it was multiple women with one story," she said. "And that story is childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and a lot of other bad things, which made them vulnerable to being picked up by traffickers or people who would want to use them."

That's when her work really picked up momentum. It gave her unfettered access that allowed her to build relationships these women so desperately needed.

And it gave her the opportunity to meet a young woman named Rose, who at the time was sitting in jail on drug charges at 19 years old.

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