AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – In 2021, according to DSS, there were 236 children identified as victims of human trafficking. For those children that manage to escape, there are few resources in South Carolina to assist them. The Bridge 2 Home in Aiken is a refuge that offers a safe home as those girls heal and grow. The organization needs support, though, and an upcoming fundraiser will give you a way to do just that.

Brad Means: Another opportunity for you to run or walk, but more importantly, raise money for a great cause. It is the Bridge 2 Home organization in the All-America City. Dominique Bunton runs it and she is our special guest, and you all do God’s work at Bridge 2 Home. We’re gonna learn about it in a minute, but first of all, thanks for being here and thanks for what you do.

Dominique Bunton: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Brad Means: It seems that at least once a week on News Channel 6 we talk about human trafficking. We talk about sex trafficking. We talk about how it happens right here in our area because of I-20. But you see it and you live it. And so my question is, is this problem getting bigger each year?

Dominique Bunton: I think the problem is awareness.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dominique Bunton: So we are more aware of it.

Brad Means: Tell me what the typical person who uses the Bridge 2 Home home looks like. Is this a girl? Is it a woman? Is it both? Describe that.

Dominique Bunton: So we will serve 12 to 17 year old girls, and they are in the custody of the state. South Carolina Department of Social Services. And we would get our referrals from SCDSS or SCDJJ which is department of juvenile justice.

Brad Means: What kind of criteria must she meet to come to you?

Dominique Bunton: So she has to fall under the definition of child sex trafficking. She has to be willing. So this is a voluntary program. So she has to be willing to participate. A lot… And the reason why we want it to be voluntary is because we don’t want to mimic anything that the trafficker does, right? So we want the girls to have a choice. We want to empower them to make the choice from the beginning, whether they want to be at the Bridge.

Brad Means: Okay, so you’re not saying, “You’re at the Bridge. Deal with it.” You say in those initial moments, “Would you like to come here? This is what we do.”

Dominique Bunton: Exactly.

Brad Means: Has anyone ever said, “No, I don’t wanna be here.”

Dominique Bunton: I’m sure, yeah.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dominique Bunton: Because they don’t want to be in foster care, right? So they want their freedom. They want to really, a lot of times go back to their traffickers, because they don’t realize they’ve been victimized.

Brad Means: What? Are they brainwashed? Is it drugs? What do the criminals do to these girls?

Dominique Bunton: Many, many different things. And we often think in trafficking, it’s criminals. But sometimes it’s parents, it’s familiar trafficking. It’s someone that has a relationship with you. And so they bond with these girls because they know them. And it’s very hard to break away from somebody that you know, from somebody that is providing for your basic needs.

Brad Means: And they’re sold primarily for sex.

Dominique Bunton: Yes, sex is what they’re sold for. But these girls, they may agree to do that just because they need to meet their basic needs. They need food, they need shelter, they need clothing, or they need love. They need to feel like they are accepted, and the traffickers do that for them.

Brad Means: Dominique you said 12, 12 years old?

Dominique Bunton: 12 to 17 year old girls.

Brad Means: What do you do with ’em when you get ’em? How do you begin to undo the horror that has been done to them?

Dominique Bunton: So our home is trauma informed, right? So you want the staff to understand what trauma is. And that’s where we begin understanding what trauma is, understanding what it looks like, what the behaviors are. So that’s where we start with our staff. And then when you understand what trauma is and these girls come in, and they blow up at you, or they start cursing at you, or they become verbally or physically aggressive, we don’t kick ’em out. Because we understand that’s where those behaviors are coming from.

Brad Means: You say we, these are professional counselors who know what’s coming and know how to deal with it.

Dominique Bunton: So yeah. They are not counselors, but they are trained in being trauma informed.

Brad Means: Gotcha.

Dominique Bunton: And we will use professional counselors as far as the counseling is concerned. So we can use people from the Child Advocacy Center, CAC in Aiken. Or Aiken Barnwell or the Cumbee Center, private counseling.

Brad Means: So what happens at the 5K run for freedom. We get as many people as we can out to Odell Weeks, and they donate as much as humanly possible, so y’all can keep doing this.

Dominique Bunton: They register from Eventbrite. They go into Eventbrite and look for-

Brad Means: It’s really easy.

Dominique Bunton: Yeah, the Bridge 2 Home. And that’s where we are. And they register and they come walk or run for freedom.

Brad Means: Yeah. No, it’s wonderful. And a great way to start the day, and as I mentioned, you’re supporting an incredibly awesome organization. Is there a profile of a typical client? And I hope I’m using the right word, client, patient, person, who comes to the Bridge. Is it young, old, rich? I mean, I know you mentioned the age group. Is it from all socioeconomic backgrounds?

Dominique Bunton: Yes. It doesn’t really matter. What happens is that, there’s certain things that put you higher at risk.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dominique Bunton: Okay. The socioeconomic, cultural issues. Drugs, parents, neglect. Those are things that put you at a high higher risk. Abuse and neglect.

Brad Means: Who is the typical customer? Who says it’s okay to pay this person money and go somewhere with this young person. Because we hear so much about truck stops, right?

Dominique Bunton: Right.

Brad Means: And I don’t wanna paint truckers with a broad brush.

Dominique Bunton: Right.

Brad Means: My wife’s cousin’s one. He’s a great guy.

Dominique Bunton: Yeah.

Brad Means: Who does this?

Dominique Bunton: That’s the hard thing. That is the really difficult thing, is to identify the traffickers. ‘Cause they look like you and me.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dominique Bunton: It could be a woman. It could be a man. It could be another child trafficking another child. It could be parents, professionals, somebody that is an authority. So it really is hard to identify those traffickers.

Brad Means: Are your girls primarily from this area?

Dominique Bunton: No. So we will accept girls from all over South Carolina. And we get those referrals from the Department of Social Services. So that is where these girls would be coming from.

Brad Means: All right, so you mentioned that a lot of times family members are the ones doing the trafficking. What if it’s not a family member? Do you ever get a girl into the Bridge who says, “Oh thank God, I’m safe. My parents are in Greenville. Can you call ’em for me and get me home?” Are you able to reunite families.

Dominique Bunton: >>Again, we don’t have custody. The Bridge 2 Home does not have custody over any child. So it would strictly be through Department of Social Services.

Brad Means: How long are they with you?

Dominique Bunton: So we will commit to serving a child for two years. So the problem to begin with, with foster care. South Carolina has custody over these children and they place them into either foster home or a group home. These group homes or foster homes do not have custody over these kids, right?

Brad Means: Right, the state does.

Dominique Bunton: So the state does. But what happens is when a child comes in with all the trauma, and they have certain behaviors, and they break a rule, the placement calls the Department and say, “Hey, you gotta come and get this kid. This kid is disrupting.” Whatever, “You have to come and get the kid.” So then the case worker comes, they pick up the child, and then the child sits in the office and they find another placement.

Brad Means: Gotcha.

Dominique Bunton: So every move is another trauma. So you have trauma, on top of trauma, on top of trauma, and they keep moving. So the Bridge 2 Home wants to commit to serving that child for two years and going through that healing process. So if a kid runs away 99 times, the kid will be accepted a hundred times.

Brad Means: And it takes money to do all that. It takes the resources that-

Dominique Bunton: Yes.

Brad Means: That quite frankly, you all can provide. Dominique, what’s it like when you watch somebody go from the darkest place imaginable to slowly starting to become a child again.

Dominique Bunton: So I used to work for the Department of Social Services and I saw that. And that was our high, that was our breath.

Brad Means: Oh, gotcha.

Dominique Bunton: Because you don’t see a whole lot of success stories. So when you have a child who finally gets it, that aha moment, and starts doing the work, and starts engaging in counseling, and you see the grades go up, the academics go up.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dominique Bunton: There’s just like… That’s your why, right? And that is where you get that satisfaction, and we want to be in that position, the Bridge wants to be in that position, and just go through that healing process with them, and then wait for that aha. And then see that child start coming out of where they are just by being interested in something as silly as, “Hey, I want to go horseback riding.”

Brad Means: Sure, something we take for granted.

Dominique Bunton: Right.

Brad Means: Dominique, I can’t thank you enough for what you and your team do, and for being here today. We appreciate you sharing your story and talking about the beauty of Bridge 2 Home. Thanks.

Dominique Bunton: Thank you.

Brad Means: Y’all take part in the walk or just mail Dominique a check right now, so they can keep that work going. We’ll tell you how to take part on October 8th. It’s gonna be a beautiful morning and a beautiful event for the Bridge.