Child sex trafficking stats triple in Lowcountry

Is being a top tourist destination fueling a child sex trade in Charleston?

According to data provided by Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center, the number of cases has tripled in just one year. Experts believe customers of sex traffickers like to purchase pleasure while on vacation.

Officials say there are more cases, more victims and some of the predators are parents themselves.

Sex trafficking is when an abuser uses force, fraud or coercion to make a person sell their body for sex. As the number of cases increase and the issue grows, frustration builds in survivor Lynn Sweetland.

"I am mad as hell, because it had happened and mad because it continues to happen," Sweetland said.

The Myrtle Beach woman is now opening up about the men who brutalized her. She's angry, fighting back and says she can no longer stay silent. Sweetland was not trafficked as a child, but what happened to her happens to children every day.

"I was in a lot of pain, but I share that pain with anyone who is being trafficked," she said.

Sweetland was 27 and going through a bad divorce. She said she was vulnerable when she met two men in Greenville that at first treated her with respect and gained her trust. She went with them to Florida for fun, but soon after the good times were gone.

She said the men eventually began referring to each other by different names. That's when she realized something was wrong, because the men were not who they said they were. When she confronted them, they turned on her and demanded she sell her body for sex.

Sweetland said when she refused, the nightmare began. She said they sent her to North Carolina to "teach her a lesson."

"That is when they left me at the guy's house and while I was there, this guy pulled out a gun. He made me strip, and there were three other guys there. I was raped and sodomized," she said.

After that incident, Sweetland said she did what she was told, which meant being trafficked at truck stops in several states with another woman. She said she served dozens of men each night.

"There was 20-30 a night, and that was for three months," Sweetland said.

She dropped clues to truckers, but nothing happened.

"I was surprised to see them wearing rings on their hands," she said. "I am thinking to myself, 'you are married and you are out on the road supporting your family, and you go home and you are having sex with me.'"

Children as young as 15 are being regularly trafficked for sex in the Lowcountry. Some children are even being sold out of their homes. Sometimes it's to buy drugs. Sometimes it's to tourists.

"This is a prime area," said Detective Charlie Benton with the North Charleston Police Department. "We are one of, if not the top destination for trafficking in the state."

It's not just tourists. Businessmen from around the world visiting the Lowcountry are going to websites to find local girls, and Detective Benton said they are "big customers."

In some cases, the men may not know they are dealing with children.

"With a 16-year-old, they may say the child is 19. They tell them to say they are 19," said Carole Swiecicki of the Dee Norton Children's Center. "For an adult who may purchase sex, they see that as more than acceptable."

But it's illegal, and many of the children are trapped. Detective Benton said they may not see themselves as a victim. Saving a child often takes someone noticing the signs and taking action.

"I am getting calls from defense attorneys, calls from judges, calls from social services and medical personnel that are seeing things that are suspicious and allowing us to make referrals," he said.

Lynn Sweetland eventually escaped after a trucker picked up her clues and got her out. Now, her message and purpose are clear.

She plans to open a nonprofit and push for changes to help other survivors.

"We need more shelters geared towards human trafficking," she said. "We need more facilities that are trained on this."

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