Hotels urged to help fight sex trafficking

David Weinberg Apr 25, 2012

Tess Vigeland: This week the Justice Department announced a “zero tolerance” policy on human trafficking. Attorney General Eric Holder says forced labor and forced prostitution exists just about everywhere in the U.S.

The problem of sex trafficking has become more complex with the Internet. Prostitutes are now regularly marketed online. But one organization has teamed up with a group of nuns to track down the offenders.

From St. Louis, David Weinberg reports.

David Weinberg: When the organization ECPAT was founded nearly all sex trafficking took place on the streets. Today that’s not the case.

Carol Smolinsky: A pimp rents a room at a hotel, put his kid in the room, put an ad on some online advertisement with a phone number. When men who are in the market call the phone number, they are then sent to that hotel room.

Carol Smolensky is the executive director of ECPAT. Her response was to create a hotel code of conduct designed to train hotel staff to identify traffickers and to create a system for alerting the proper authorities.

Smolensky: It’s been frankly shocking to me that even the step of having a policy against sexual exploitation of children has been troubling, shall we say, for them.

The code requires companies to inform customers of their policy against sex trafficking. But that’s a problem for many hotels. Joe McCinerny is the president of the Hotel and Lodging Association.

Joe Macininerny: They feel that might be an intrusion into customers thinking that maybe there is a problem at that hotel.

Smolensky was having difficulty getting hotels to adopt the code, until she received some help from an unexpected source: an order of Catholic nuns.

Sister Patty Johnson: Many of our congregations had been involved with ECPAT because of our work on human trafficking, so for us it was a natural next step.

Sister Patty Johnson is the executive director of the U.S. federation of the sisters of St. Joseph. Every four to six years, the sisters hold a convention of nearly 1,000 attendees. Sister Johnson contacted NIX conference management, and said she wanted to book the conference at a hotel that had signed the ECPAT code of conduct. But NIX couldn’t find one.

Kimberly Ritter: We traveled to Pittsburgh and we traveled to Chicago and we ended up in St. Louis, my hometown.

Kimberly Ritter works at NIX Management. Over the past 20 years she has been in nearly every major hotel in St. Louis. After her conversation with the sisters, Ritter was surprised to hear that girls were being trafficked in hotels she booked for her clients. So she started doing a little detective work.

Ritter: As I looked at these girls online, I could identify the curtains, the bed linens, the throws.

Ritter logged onto a trafficking website to show me exactly how she is able to identify the hotels in the photographs.

Ritter: Pretty vile, isn’t it? Oh, I know exactly which hotel that is.

Once Ritter identifies the place she then notifies the hotel’s general manager.

Ritter: Generally the response is, “That doesn’t happen at our property.” So I’ve learned that as I go to these hotels I am able to say, but look — this is a girl and this is your pillow case, this is the throw on the end of your bed and that’s where the conversation usually ends because they’re shocked.

On her own, Kimberly Ritter would not have much influence with the hotel industry. But because she works for a conference management company, she has considerable leverage. She used this leverage to get The Millennium’s hotel in St. Louis to sign the code of conduct. In exchange, the Sisters of St. Joseph agreed to have their conference there. Once the code was signed, The Millennium began the employee-training phase. This self-policing by hotels helps law enforcement identify traffickers.

Noelle Collins: Investigators are skilled, but they can’t be everywhere all the time.

Noelle Collins is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Collins: We need other people to be eyes and ears.

The Millennium hired a social worker named Katie Rhoades to train the staff to look for signs of trafficking. Rhoades knows those signs first hand. She was a victim herself. When Rhoades was 18 she was taken by a pimp to California to work in hotels.

Katie Rhoades: And so I think if hotel security would have known, would have been able to kind of recognize, would have been able to ask questions I would have been more willing to reach out and that very potentially could have saved me from another several months in the sex trade.

There are already signs this initiative is having an impact. The day after an article on the Millennium was published, the news was tweeted by sex traffickers. Molly Hackett is the owner of NIX Management.

Molly Hackett: The article had been tweeted by traffickers saying go somewhere else. The Millennium hotel signed the code of conduct, steer clear.

The Millennium says they are using the St. Louis location as a pilot program for now, and will decide in the future if they will adopt the code at their other locations around the world.

In St. Louis, I’m David Weinberg for Marketplace.

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