There are more than 40 massage businesses in Lawrence, none of which is subject to oversight by the state, county or city. And some criminals have taken advantage.
Local law enforcement told city commissioners at their most recent meeting that the absence of regulation and licensing enables criminals to use the industry to mask illegal activities such as human trafficking and prostitution. Detectives provided the example of a 2015 case related to a business called Spring Massage, which through online posts was drawing men from outside Lawrence.
“Men who came to the business knew who to ask for, what to ask for and what could be expected from the people in that place,” said Lawrence Police Department Detective Greg Pruett. “Lawrence doesn’t want to be a place that invites that kind of behavior.”
Pruett said that in the six-month period they were investigating the human-trafficking case, there was a “revolving door” of 14 women who were trafficked through Lawrence and more than 1,000 unique male visitors between the Lawrence shop and a second that was opened in Topeka. He said they were able to rescue two of the women, who had been brought to the country with hopes of being part of a legitimate business.
Instead, Pruett said when the women complained to their boss about inappropriate actions by customers, they were told to “take care of the customer.” He said at times the women were forced to sleep at the massage shops without beds and bathe in a “kiddie pool.”
“When your employer sets up your housing,” Pruett continued, “when they pick you up from the airport or from the bus station or from wherever it’s going to be, and they transport you here, and they tell you where you’re going to sleep, and they take you to the store and they buy you your food for you.
"And they take you to a place and tell you when you’re going to work and how long you’re going to work, that is human trafficking and it occurs in Lawrence, Kansas.”
Pruett emphasized that the ordinance was to separate those criminal activities from legitimate businesses, and that the ordinance wasn’t the only thing the department was doing to combat human trafficking.
A global problem
Human trafficking is a form of slavery that has recently received increasing attention across the country, with various states creating task forces to address the issue. Human trafficking is believed to be the third-largest criminal activity in the world, according to the FBI. It includes forced labor, domestic servitude and commercial sex trafficking.
Following the investigation of Spring Massage in Lawrence, two Chinese nationals, Chen Li and Guihong Xiao, were later convicted on charges related to allegations of human trafficking at the business.
Kansas is one of only a few states nationwide that do not regulate the massage industry, which means oversight falls to cities and counties. At urging from the Lawrence police department and the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, the city has spent the past year drafting an ordinance to regulate the massage industry.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Simpson, who also worked on the Spring Massage case, urged the commissioners to move forward with it.
“You’re never going to meet the women that you will help with this ordinance, but they are out there,” Simpson said.
Concerns from local massage businesses
Amid criticism from a vocal group of massage and bodywork businesses, the commission voted to defer the ordinance for more study. Commissioners also cited a need to collaborate with the county so that a Lawrence ordinance doesn’t serve to push illegitimate business outside the city limits.
The main complaint of the group, Lawrence Massage and Bodywork Alliance Steering Committee, is that the draft ordinance — which covers licensing, educational/training requirements, inspections and client record-keeping — does not follow industry standards.
In drafting the ordinance, city attorneys met multiple times with some massage and bodywork professionals and took their feedback. Holly Krebs, a representative of the committee and a certified rolfer, told the Journal-World later that they are not opposed to licensure, but that some provisions of the ordinance are “out of step” with industry standard regulation.
“Our primary complaint is that we gave them an extensive detailed analysis of our concerns with their policy, and they made maybe a few small changes, but did not address the majority of our concerns,” Krebs said.
The ordinance includes the possibility for immediate-entry inspections and a requirement for massage businesses to keep a daily registry with client names and addresses, the service requested and the service provided.
Krebs said some of the requirements are inconsistent with what other businesses are required to do and could violate client confidentiality agreements or the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which some massage or bodywork therapists fall under.
“There were components of the ordinance that they were asking to apply to our industry that they only otherwise apply to sexually oriented businesses,” Krebs said. “And as we are a health care profession, we don’t think that that is an appropriate association for us as professionals.”
The ordinance states that code enforcement officers and police officers may “from time to time” inspect massage businesses, and Pruett said such inspections were similar to inspections for fire code. He also said a review of the client registry would require a search warrant and probable cause.
But Krebs said the provisions concerning inspections and client registries need to be better spelled out to ensure the privacy of clients is protected.
“I think that there’s enough lack of clarity in the ordinance that we aren’t provided adequate protections,” Krebs said.
Something must be done
Commissioner Matthew Herbert said the commission seems to agree that some kind of ordinance is required but that the scope of the ordinance needs more review.
“All parties agree that a problem exists,” Herbert said. “All parties agree that we want to enable the Lawrence police department to be able to do everything they can to stop this. However, we don’t agree that some of the language inserted into the ordinance needs to be there.”
Specifically, Herbert said language that barred someone who was convicted of any felony within the past five years from getting a license was too broad, and that he thinks it should be specific to sex trafficking, prostitution or violence against a person.
Herbert also was concerned that the requirement for client record keeping was too extensive and that they needed to be sure that what the ordinance requires is in line with HIPAA privacy requirements that some massage or bodywork businesses must follow.
Herbert said that the crimes committed by the owners of Spring Massage demonstrate the issue must be addressed but that more review of the ordinance is needed.
“It’s kind of a tricky deal because obviously every single one of the commissioners acknowledges that human sex trafficking is a real problem, and it’s not the kind of problem you want to turn your back on and ignore,” Herbert said. “It became very real when Lawrence encountered a situation where we had that happening in our community.”