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Why some say new Vt. massage therapist law doesn’t go far enough

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 3:54 PM EDT
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STOWE, Vt. (WCAX) - The 2019 voyeurism conviction of a Middlebury massage therapist is the catalyst for a statewide change. According to a law that went into effect on April 1, massage therapists, body workers and touch professionals must register their practice with the Office of Professional Regulation.

Before this year, Vermont was one of only four states in the country without this requirement.

Massage therapists and advocates of sexual assault victims tell me it’s about time the state recognized it needed to step in, that misconduct in massage spas and parlors has been running rampant for years.

But Maureen Slayton, who owns Sage Collective Therapeutic Massage & Body Work in Stowe, insists the government oversight doesn’t go far enough.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Why are you disappointed in the legislation?

Maureen Slayton, Sage Collective Therapeutic Massage & Body Work: I’m disappointed because I believe massage therapists should be held to the same standard of care as other health care professionals.

As a board-certified massage therapist, Slayton takes her job seriously. While she has worked in private practices for the past 20 years, Vermont doesn’t demand she or any touch professional earn a license.

In other words, practices just have to tell the state they exist-- no proof of proper education required.

Slayton argues that limitation in the new law undermines the integrity of the industry.

“I really feel like I should be held accountable. I should know my stuff,” she said. “It’s only in the best interest of the Vermont consumer to have faith and trust in my education and what I’m doing to their body.”

She says that puts vulnerable Vermonters, who often lie partially clothed or even naked on tables, at risk.

“I was supposed to help you get rid of your pain, not create new pain for you,” Roger Schmidt said at his sentencing in 2019.

I was there as Schmidt, a massage therapist practicing in Middlebury, faced the dozens of clients whose privacy he violated.

“I looked around and I saw it, and I was like that’s it. That’s a camera, I know it is,” one anonymous complainant said in 2019.

“There’s a sense that I’ve been robbed, and I still don’t know all of what was taken,” complainant Michelle Audette said in 2019.

It was these survivors’ profound testimonies that motivated the Office of Professional Regulation to revisit Vermont’s policy.

Until Schmidt’s high-profile case, the office says it hadn’t received enough complaints of sexual misconduct to warrant restrictions.

“It became very clear that that could happen, it has happened, it could happen again,” said Lauren Hibbert, the director of the Office of Professional Regulation.

Now, as part of the law, rather than make an allegation with local law enforcement, victims can submit a confidential complaint online. The office is then obligated to investigate.

Since April, the state has received four complaints involving inappropriate or unwanted touching.

“We heard loud and clear from survivors that they wanted another pathway, they wanted other options when the criminal legal system wasn’t working for them,” said Sarah Robinson, the deputy director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Those survivors say they hope this law will at least help prevent future harm at the hands of Vermont’s nearly 800 registered massage therapists.

“Vermont owes a debt of gratitude to them,” Hibbert said.

The state says it stopped the legislation before licensure because training isn’t the problem, behavior is. But massage therapists tell me they think if a professional abuses their power, the state should revoke their right to practice, not just issue a slap on the wrist.

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