At 14 years old, Heather Cook was a habitual runaway and an easy target for sex traffickers. 

“I met this man and he told me that he loved me, and basically for lack of better words, would be a knight in shining armor and would just take me away from all the pain,” Cook said. ” I believed him and that’s how it all started.”

Now, a decade after she was able to escape a life of drugs and sex trafficking,  Cook has a job as a resident coordinator at Oliver Gospel Mission and a family, including a husband, five children and two furry friends. She is sharing her story to help raise awareness as state lawmakers work to ensure other young children are not ensnared in the criminal life she endured as a teenager and protected from imprisonment.

Legislation introduced by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, would protect minors and give them immunity for crimes they commit under their abuser’s guidance. Under current law, children who commit crimes while they are being trafficked can be charged for the crimes they commit, including prostitution.

“The goal here is for minors that are victims to make sure they’re not charged for a crime, but instead to divert them into treatment that can help them, especially those who are recruited or victimized into sex trade,” Sheheen said. The legislation’s title, the Safe Harbor for Exploited Minors Act, suggests a move from punishment to treatment and rehabilitation. 

In 2017, 43 children were involved in human trafficking in South Carolina. Like Cook, many of them were habitual runaways. 

Cook said a year after she met her abuser, he introduced her to drugs. He told her she needed to make money to pay for her drug habit. That’s when she got involved in sex trafficking.

“Imagine if you’ve done this from the age of 14-18, it’s kind of like you don’t know how to live without it,” Cook said.

She said it was like Stockholm syndrome, she became attached to him, and that for around 18 years she worked all over South Carolina.  

“There were places that we lived in the USC area, there were places that we lived in the downtown area, that weren’t these drug infested and low-income areas, they were middle class and upper-class areas.

Over the years Cook accumulates charges from the life she led, and she said her abuser would bail her out and give her social security numbers to tell cops if they ever stopped her on foot so they wouldn’t be able to identify her.

She spent most of her life in the shadows of society until the last time she was sex trafficked.

“My last experience would be 11 years ago in August, it’s when I was purchased for a significant amount of money in Charleston,” Cook said.

She said she knew she would die if she went, but her abuser didn’t care.  Cook said before she went to Charleston, she went to Walmart in the early morning hours to pick up new luggage for what she presumed would be her final trip.  On the way, Cook says she was stopped by a cop for not putting on her blinker, and that is when she decided to come clean.  She gave the cop her real identity knowing that she was headed to prison, but she knew that was her way out.

“If I could just stay gone long enough, I could stay gone,” Cook said. 

Looking back now on stolen adolescences, she said it took her years to begin the healing process.  When she came across the non-profit organization Lighthouse for Life, she began to get some clarity for her situation.

Once Cook made the connection with Lighthouse for Life, Elizabeth Rummel, a social worker with the organization said they referred her to Elliot Daniels, a lawyer at Murphy and Grantland who works as the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina.

Daniels spent a considerable amount of time looking at her circumstance and criminal record and confirmed that she was a victim of human trafficking. He was able to get her record expunged.  For Cook, that opened her eyes to what really happened to her, and with this new knowledge, she allowed herself to start the healing process.

“For so long, I lived with this stigma like I did it; it was my fault.  I made these decisions, I made these choices,” Cook said. “But no 14-year-old decides that she wants to be sexually exploited for the rest of her life. You know, no 14-year-old says ‘abuse me and let me sleep with a thousand men in a month.’ That’s just not what kids think about.”

Cook supports the act because she believes helping children involved in human trafficking realize that they are victims and not criminals is the first step towards helping them heal. 

“When you’re identified a certain way, that’s kind of how you live and the real freedom is when you take that label off,” Cook said.

There were 198 cases of human trafficking in South Carolina throughout 2017, with Richland County being the biggest hub in the state with 26 cases. 

Sgt. Nina Mauldin, who works with victim services at the Richland County Sheriffs Department, said that human trafficking is more prevalent than most would think.

Mauldin said that they often flag runaway children aged 14 and 15 because they are the most susceptible to trafficking. 

“When we started working these cases several years ago, I remember thinking this is not happening in Richland County. This is happening in the big cities,” Mauldin said.

The legislation is currently awaiting action in a Senate committee.