Children are Taboo: How to recognize underage sex trafficking within the hospitality industry

Article by Astrid Zeppenfeld

Human trafficking – especially that of underage sex trafficking – has been thrown into the public eye again and even more so than ever with the recent FBI seizure of  Backpage.com, a large classified ad listing service, and the even more recent signing of FOSTA. FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) was authored by Congresswoman Ann Wagner of Missouri, and allows victims of sex trafficking to hold any online companies/websites that facilitate the exploitation of humans in such a way criminally responsible.”

It is an enormous, impactful step towards ending the exploitation of minors who are obviously neither physically/mentally able to, nor legally authorized to, sell their own bodies. Children who could not even consent to work for someone else by washing a car or the dishes, were advertised and sold as sex workers on certain websites. With FOSTA, which was signed into law on April 11, 2018, we may be seeing fewer children sold for sex because it will hopefully be much harder for pimps to offer them up for sale through the Internet, thus making the sex trade of minors riskier again for all parties involved. Websites can now be held criminally responsible if they knowingly advertise or assist in the advertising of sex services of any kind. On the other hand, consenting adults who engage in the sex trade and are legally allowed to do anything they want with their bodies, including selling them, have voiced that this bill forces them to work for a pimp on the streets, even though they had previously established their own lucrative escort website legally on Craigslist or Backpage. Under this legislation, it constitutes a federal crime to operate “an interactive computer service” with “the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” According to this definition, the legislation would not extend to adult sex workers who advertise their own services online.

But the legal ramifications of FOSTA aside, why did the St. Louis Area Hotel Association’s Educational Committee choose the topic of human trafficking for the luncheon keynote at the recent Missouri Meetings & Events Groovy Galas & Funky Functions Expo?
The reason is: BECAUSE CHANCES ARE IT IS HAPPENING AT YOUR FACILITY OR AT THE FACILITY WHERE YOU ARE HOLDING YOUR EVENT!

BRIEF SUMMARY OF KEYNOTE
The title of the luncheon keynote was Human Trafficking: How to Recognize and Respond. The first panel member to speak was Kathleen Thimsen, DPN, MSN, WOCN, FNS. Dr. Thimsen is a forensic nurse and teaches at Goldfarb School of Nursing. She leads a group which seeks to advance the identification, response, and care of victims of human trafficking. Her story of how she became such an integral part in the St. Louis-based community working to stem the tide of human trafficking illustrates just how important it is for anyone to be informed on the topic. Unless you never ever set foot into a lodging establishment of any kind in your life, you need to know how to recognize human trafficking, even if you do not belong to the hotel staff and are only there as a visitor, meeting a hotel guest for a business lunch in the restaurant, on the premise. Why do you need to know? Because human trafficking is that prevalent. Because every one of us is basically a good person who would not want anything bad to happen to innocent people, especially if they are minors who cannot defend themselves. Because after September 11th, we all became miniature human detectors who are subconsciously scanning faces at the gate before getting on the airplane, so we all have it in us to help these exploited minors. And, finally, because if it were your own children who were being trafficked, you would want someone to report it, too, if he saw your children so they could be saved.

Dr. Thimsen started the keynote off by telling the audience about the time she was at a week-long conference in Denver, staying at a big hotel there. One evening, she and her friend approached the elevators to return to their room, when the two children standing in front of them said, “These elevators do not work.” The children did not have the required card to summon the elevators. Upon being questioned further, they revealed that they had no guardian with them and the person who took them to the hotel left them with typed instructions to “come win an electronic Pokémon game”. Luckily, Kathleen and her friend were curious enough to follow these two children to room 526 and then made the call to hotel security to alert them of suspicious activity in said room on the fifth floor. This particular Denver hotel security jumped to the aid of what turned out to be “26 children between the ages of 8 to 14, engaging in sex acts and shooting porn”, our panelist Dr. Kathleen Thimsen reported.

If this last statement did not get your attention, then maybe the next one will.

Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh from the St. Louis County Police Department, who used to arrest adult prostitutes “back in the day” and now – eight or nine years later – recognizes as Supervisor of the St. Louis County Multi-Jurisdictional Human Trafficking Task Force and Deputy Commander of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force that arresting “minors went from being very rare to being very frequent.” The City of St. Louis is a major hub for human trafficking; we have lots of travelers passing through because we are located smack down in the middle of the country. And kidnapping a minor and taking him on an airplane without any form of ID is harder than kidnapping him and going for a car ride across several states to sell him for sex five states over. However, nobody enjoys driving for 24 hours straight, especially with children. So, the traffickers make stops along the way. Could you spot the trafficker with the child that doesn’t belong in your hotel?

THE INSTANT THIS INFORMATION HIT TOO CLOSE TO HOME
A few months ago, my own children and I were driving along Tesson Ferry Road in South County in the evening. At the intersection of Lindbergh and Tesson Ferry, my 7-year-old pointed at the car next to us and said to me, “Mama, that kid is asking for help.” I looked over and noticed a child whom I imagined being about three or four years old, but it was hard to tell in the dark. I did see that the kid seemed to be unbuckled and climbing around the back seat; however, I remember thinking at the time that the adult in the passenger seat was dealing with it. Feeling every bit of the exhausted mother myself that evening, I even sympathized with the two adults in the car. My son insisted. “Mama, look, he is pressing his hands against the window; I think he wants to get out.” My response was something along the lines of, “Yes, little kids like to try to get out of moving cars; this is why we have child locks. But he should be buckled up.” Focus on driving. Make it home so these kids can go to bed. My son repeated, “No, Mama, I think he’s scared.” Just as the other car turned right onto Lindbergh while we went straight across. Should I turn around and see if I can chase the car to get the license plate? Should I call in that my 7-year-old thinks this toddler in a non-descript dark-colored sedan was asking for help? Is there even anything I can or should do in this situation?
I wish I could say that I called the police; they showed up and it turned out to be nothing. I wish I could say that I tried to do anything at all. According to Sergeant Kavanaugh, I should have at least tried. He urges, “Make the phone call. Make it, even if it’s “only” a domestic abuse case and there is no (underage) trafficking involved.” I certainly will from now on, Sergeant Kavanaugh.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
If you own or manage a hotel, does your staff have the training to spot a trafficking victim, of any age? All your staff, including your room service and your maintenance people, not just your security officers? Do you know if your linen supply company or your pest control guy is aware of this issue and if not, would you consider offering a training to your employees and others you do business with? You never know who might spot a child being dropped off at an odd hour, looking lost or like he does not belong. Are you personally able to recognize and respond? Dr. Thimsen shared how she was able to save those children at that hotel in Denver. She put together a checklist, which you might want to consider sharing with your employees at your next staff meeting. Signs to look for, according to Dr. Thimsen, include:

1. The trafficked person does not know what city she is in, she may not have an ID, and/or someone speaks for her the entire time.
2. The victim may be wearing clothing that is utterly inappropriate for his situation or the current weather.
3. It may be a child that is either unaccompanied or in the company of hypervigilant/overly protective adults.
4. The child may be reading off a paper to learn directions or locations and may be reluctant to answer questions, if not avoiding the questions all together.
5. Young children may have iphones, ipads, games or play station technology. (I realize this particular point may be the hardest one to discern these days, with so many young children legitimately owning all sorts of electronic devices.)

But above all: Be alert! Notice what is happening around you; if it feels “off”, call law enforcement or the Missouri Attorney General Tip Line – 888.373.7888 (the national tip line is the Polaris Project… https://polarisproject.org/)

Do not try to rescue a person; call law enforcement, for your own safety and that of the victim!

THANK YOU SO MUCH
We would like to take this opportunity to thank the St. Louis Area Hotel Association (SLAHA) for recognizing the need to create awareness of this issue and for responding by sponsoring this event. Hearing from people on the frontlines of this fight, one of them being a victim of sex trafficking herself, really made an impact on many of our attendees. Katie Rhoades, founder of Healing Action and survivor of sexual trafficking abuse, stated quite bluntly, “We do not have a supply problem; we have a demand problem.” Drawing on her own experience ‘on the job’, she explained that “the hot time for sex prostitution is about 7 am when people are headed to work, because a lot of clients are husbands and businessmen.” This is obviously in stark contrast to the common mental picture I myself had of seedy single men driving up and down the streets to pick up a prostitute late at night.

Appealing to the audience’s compassion, Katie spoke of the devaluation of humans when they are being trafficked or even when they “choose” to sell themselves for money because this is the only way they know how to support themselves and their families. I don’t know about you but I have never heard anyone say before that “if you’re buying another human being, you’ve de-valued [us]. [I] can’t say to a trick, “Treat me well”, because [you] just bought [me].” (Katie Rhoades, Healing Action)

I had the chance to interview attendees about this educational luncheon right after and I received very interesting feedback from several. Please look in our fall issue for my compilation of reactions to all of this information, after you yourself have had time to digest it and realize the enormity of this issue globally and, specifically, in our industry.

MM&E
Astrid Zeppenfeld is a contributing writer and MM&E’s editor/ business development manager from St. Louis.

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.