Without local licensing, advocates say illicit massage parlors continue to ensnare vulnerable youth

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

There are about 50 massage businesses in Lawrence, many long-standing but some that seemingly spring up overnight — announcing themselves with flimsy signs and cloaked front windows.

Local human trafficking advocates say that hiding among the multitude, there are businesses where young girls report they’ve been controlled by pimps and forced to provide sexual services.

“We know that human trafficking does exist within the realm of massage parlors,” said Kristen Tebow, founder and CEO of the Youth Trust Project. “It’s one of the big-time guises of human trafficking. Because there is not an accountability process, it’s much easier for exploitation to take place.”

And the back pages of the internet continue to hail prospective clients to the doors of these “massage” shops, with little that can be done to prevent it. There is no state or local licensing to ensure massage businesses are legitimate or to differentiate a certified professional who has been practicing for years from those who simply hang a sign. Earlier this month, the city declared January Human Trafficking Awareness Month, but when an ordinance to license and regulate massage businesses will be completed is still unknown. That is despite the fact that more than a year ago, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson asked the city to create a licensing system, citing concerns that the lack of regulations was drawing human trafficking activity to Lawrence.

Lawrence an outlier

Human trafficking is a form of slavery that includes forced labor, domestic servitude and commercial sex trafficking and is believed to be one of the most common criminal activities in the world, according to the FBI. Lawrence shelters have told the Journal-World that they typically see dozens of human trafficking victims annually, the majority of them young people forced or manipulated into providing sexual services.

Kansas is one of only three states that do not regulate the massage industry, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. And Lawrence is on a dwindling list of Kansas cities without an ordinance. Despite Branson’s request for the city to draft regulations to deter human trafficking, the effort has lagged.

In the 16 months since Branson’s request, Tebow said the Youth Trust Project, which does outreach to vulnerable and exploited youth, has worked with two girls under 18 who were trafficked in part through Lawrence massage parlors. Tebow said she can’t provide the specifics on those cases, but that in general, she wants people to understand how prevalent human trafficking is in Lawrence, and that unregulated massage parlors contribute to the problem.

“When you don’t have a checks and balances system, it’s not really protective for those who are vulnerable,” Tebow said. “When you need those systems, they’re not there.”

Several of the state’s larger cities — including Topeka, Overland Park, Lenexa and Wichita — require massage businesses to be licensed and for employees to meet certain education standards. Branson said Lawrence’s lack of an ordinance “absolutely” makes the city more susceptible to attracting human trafficking.

Branson referenced a 2015 case in which two Chinese nationals, Chen Li and Guihong Xiao, brought women to the United States with the promise of legitimate work, but instead forced them to perform sex work at a Lawrence “massage” shop.

“In fact, the businesses in question sprang up after various cities in Johnson County put their regulations in place,” Branson said in an email.

Law enforcement officers who worked on that case told the City Commission last year that as many as 14 women were trafficked through the Lawrence shop. At times the women were forced to sleep at massage shops without beds and bathe in a “kiddie pool.”

Eventually, police were able to rescue two of the women and Li and Xiao were convicted of crimes related to human trafficking. It was eventually revealed that in 2013, the two had been found guilty of promoting prostitution at two massage businesses in Bonner Springs, but without licensing, those crimes did not prevent them from opening up a shop in Lawrence.

What about the professionals?

A draft of an ordinance to regulate Lawrence massage businesses was introduced to the City Commission last March, and soon thereafter, a group of massage industry workers — the Lawrence Massage & Bodyworkers Alliance — formed in opposition. The draft called for licensing and education requirements for those performing massages and also allowed for strong oversight, including limits on the hours of operation, the possibility for immediate-entry inspections and a requirement for massage businesses to keep a daily registry with client names and services provided.

What will resurface from that draft is unknown.

When asked by the Journal-World, city legal staff said the ordinance has been “in the queue” and there is not really an update on it. Still, Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said the issue is still a priority. She said staff began working on the ordinance again at the end of last month and eventually plan to reach out to those in the massage industry who oppose the ordinance.

“Lawrence is one of very, very few (cities) in this area that doesn’t have anything,” Garcia said. “So, yes, it’s still of interest to the city because ultimately it is related to the health, safety and welfare of the citizens.”

Garcia said city staff recently revisited the comments the City Commission provided in March, which included the direction to work with the group of massage professionals to consider their concerns. What about the ordinance may change isn’t yet known, but Garcia said the new proposal will be different.

“I don’t have anything specific that I can say that will be removed from the ordinance or added,” Garcia said. “Obviously that first ordinance didn’t pass, so we are going to have to make some changes to it.”

Holly Krebs, a certified practitioner of a type of intensive massage known as Rolfing, is a representative of the Lawrence Massage & Bodyworkers Alliance. Krebs said the draft was “too invasive and overly policing.”

“The emphasis in the city policy is not about how massage therapists should practice, but how the city can control and investigate massage therapists,” Krebs said.

Krebs and her group have been clear they are not against licensing, but how the city goes about enforcing licensing requirements and other regulations is key. Krebs — who said the group has not heard from the city since last year — said the ordinance did not follow industry standards or treat massage therapists like other professionals.

“We as a professional field are asking that the way that the ordinance be written is just the way that you would regulate doctors or plumbers or lawyers or nurses,” Krebs said.

The commission also directed the city to coordinate with Douglas County in adopting regulations so as to not just push illicit businesses outside the city limits. Garcia said each government would need to pass its own regulations.

Addressing a hidden crime

The Lawrence police department told the Journal-World that there have been no investigations related to illicit massage businesses since the 2015 case. However, in his letter to the city, Branson said part of the problem is that human trafficking is a “hidden crime” in which victims rarely come forward to seek help because of language barriers, fear of the traffickers and/or fear of law enforcement.

Branson told the Journal-World that when massage licensing and regulations are not in place in a city, it creates issues for law enforcement trying to investigate human trafficking. He said the nature of the services offered makes it “extremely difficult” for law enforcement officers to discover illegal activity.

“At times, officers may have to pose as a regular client, exposing themselves to sexual assault,” Branson said.

Branson said there are some must-haves in an ordinance when it comes to regulating the massage industry to curb human trafficking. He said those include identification and the qualifications of the employees at each business and what businesses are offering massage services.

Tebow also spoke to the fact that many victims of human trafficking, including vulnerable youth such as runaways, don’t go to the police because they fear being arrested. She said even when talking to advocates such as herself, they do not come forward easily and sometimes don’t even fully understand that they were a victim of human trafficking.

“It’s not revealed,” Tebow said. “The victims don’t talk about it until you’ve been able to develop enough trust with them for them to tell you everything. That’s why it’s so difficult to prosecute these cases.”

Tebow said she agrees the city should work with the professional massage businesses in crafting the regulations, but that human trafficking advocates should also be involved.

Garcia said there is not a date yet for when the new draft of an ordinance will be brought back to the City Commission, but that once a draft is created it will likely be brought to a work session for an initial discussion.