Before addressing a problem, you have to be able to identify it clearly — South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said that’s part of the effort human trafficking and victim service experts have been making throughout the past year in dealing with this often-nebulous crime.

On Monday morning, Wilson was joined by officials from multiple state agencies, all partners in the state Human Trafficking Task Force. Wilson was announcing the release of the task force’s 2020 annual report and shared some of the year’s advances.

He praised the more than 450 members of the task force, comprised of law enforcement agencies, nonprofits, government agencies and community groups all focused on responding to the crime of human trafficking or providing services for the victims. The past year saw the addition of the Task Force Advisory Council, members of which are experts in areas critical to addressing the issues involved with trafficking.

“These partnerships will help provide us the most evidence-based, specialized services to victims, as we are constantly struggling to meet the specific needs of those who have been victimized by human traffickers,” Wilson said.

In early December, the task force grew, adding a 9th regional task force in the 11th judicial circuit, which includes McCormick, Saluda, Edgefield and Lexington counties. This area task force is led by the 11th Circuit Solicitor’s Office and the Dickerson Children’s Advocacy Center.

Next up, Wilson said he wants to add the Pee Dee region this year.

The novel coronavirus pandemic required these task force members to adapt to meeting virtually and adjust how they provide their services, but it also made monitoring trafficking trends a challenge.

“The most vulnerable populations in our state, including children, were a challenge to monitor because the number of people interacting with this population became smaller, because of the quarantine and the effects of COVID-19,” Wilson said.

Over the past 18 months, however, officials have worked to improve programs to monitor and address trafficking. DSS Director Michael Leach said his department has adopted standard operating procedures in the sex trafficking programs, and extended policies to include labor trafficking. County and region-level training is helping staff adapt to a new, systemic approach to data collection, intended to track each suspected trafficking case from when it’s reported through to the victim receiving treatment and aid.

“Like the rest of the nation, the number of child trafficking victims increased dramatically when the COVID pandemic hit,” he said. “Our data shows the number of child trafficking intakes from March 2020 to April 2020 increased from 14 to 25.”

The economic effects of the virus have likely put already vulnerable people more at risk, by creating unstable living conditions and greater economic need. To combat this, Leach said DSS is working to expand placement and treatment options for victims by collaborating with national and state experts.

“Those placement options and service array are lacking in this area, and we have to continue to figure out how to make that work, including having the necessary funding to be able to do that,” he said.

Data that Wilson shared from the Polaris Project National Human Trafficking Hotline showed the top five counties for reports of suspected human trafficking in 2020 were Horry, Charleston, Greenville and Richland, with Anderson County knocking Dorchester out of the fifth spot this past year. Since the hotline is for reports of suspected trafficking, not every tip turns out to be true or to lead to trafficking charges. This could be evidence, he said, that these regions have worked to raise awareness of the hotline itself.

Kathryn Moorehead, director of the attorney general’s human trafficking program, said gathering data and being able to identify human trafficking and its many shades is the first step. With that information, she said the state can better know how to address the issue, and can use the information to try and entice victim service providers to expand to areas of South Carolina in need.

Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.