Officials say massage parlor law does little to deter human trafficking

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 5:21 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Human trafficking operations have taken place across Vermont, but the discreet nature of the crimes, authorities say, often make them particularly difficult to uncover. While massage parlors and spas are often the targets of such investigations, a new law regulating bodywork professionals does little to deter human trafficking.

A slew of human trafficking investigations across Vermont between 2013 and 2016 -- including in Burlington, Shelburne, Colchester, Williston, Rutland, and Bennington -- involved massage spas and parlors serving as fronts for illegal activity.

Authorities say the traffickers bring young women to Vermont from overseas and force them into sex work. But in the years since, the criminal rings running the operations have largely gone silent. While Vermont authorities say they have no record of recent busts, they say that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away, or that brick and mortar businesses haven’t been harboring human trafficking.

According to a law that went into effect on April 1, massage therapists, bodyworkers, and touch professionals must register their practice with the Office of Professional Regulation. But Lauren Hibbert, director of the OPR, says it’s an issue that can’t be stopped with one state law. Human trafficking is part of a complex criminal network, It’s not something OPR is going to be able to solve or fix,” she said.

Christina Nolan, the former U.S. Attorney for Vermont and co-chair of Vermont’s Human Trafficking Task Force, says the state’s lax laws let bad actors fly under the radar. “No hundreds of hours of education, no education about contra-indicated medical practices, no continuing education,” she said. Nolan says that gives traffickers even more control over victims. “Holding something over them like their immigration status, offering them money and then offering to take it away if they don’t engage in nefarious practices in these parlors.”

On the other hand, Nolan and Vermont authorities note that most of Vermont’s human trafficking happens within the drug trade, including the 2019 case of Brian Folks. The FBI lists six offenses in Vermont between 2019 and 2020, including one arrest. Officials say those victims often don’t even realize they’re being trafficked and so many go unreported.

Some massage operations we spoke to suggest legalizing sex work as a solution. Nolan strongly opposes that idea, saying it would be even more difficult to identify victims and prosecute perpetrators. “If sex work was legal in Vermont, then these establishments could crop up and there’s nothing law enforcement could do about them,” she said.

The Burlington City Council is considering decriminalizing sex work. An ordinance currently prohibits property owners from housing prostitution and the Office of Professional Regulation says municipal codes like that are the best means to prevent human trafficking.

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