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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 22, 2018

Initiative trains motel staffs on spotting sex trade

Sep 20, 2017

By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau


DES MOINES — Hotels and motels have become the latest focal point for Iowa’s efforts to curb human trafficking by training workers, managers and patrons on spotting and reporting criminal activities.

Gov. Kim Reynolds used her weekly news conference Tuesday to announce an initiative aimed at fighting the growing number of sex trafficking cases involving hotels and motels.

Iowa’s Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery estimates at least half of sex trafficking takes place in hospitality venues, often without the knowledge of management and staff. The network’s leader, George Belitsos, said Iowa’s group has partnered with Nebraska’s Coalition on Human Trafficking to launch the Iowa Hotel/Motel Training Project.

Three trainers from Omaha came to Des Moines on Sept. 13 for the first training session. The next will take place Monday in Cedar Rapids with discussions also taking place in the Quad Cities, Dubuque, Sioux City and Council Bluffs for similar efforts, said Stephen Patrick O’Meara of the Nebraska group.

“Iowa is not immune from human trafficking as we sit at the crossroads of I-35 and I-80,” said Reynolds, who noted a trafficking ring recently was broken up in her hometown of Osceola.

“ ... That’s why I’m grateful to see this private sector partnership between our state and Nebraska,” she added. “I know it will support the good work we’re already doing, from the strong laws we have on the books to the Office to Combat Human Trafficking we established within the Department of Public Safety to our law enforcement officers participating in training programs.”

O’Meara, a former prosecutor in Iowa and Nebraska, said research indicates that on any given month there are 800 to 1,000 “unique persons at high and moderate risk to be victimized by sex trafficking, and much if not most of sex trafficking is actually carried out in hotels and motels — although I think currently that is often without the awareness of the hotel and motel.”

He said his group has trained personnel in over 100 hotels and motels in Nebraska to recognize signs of sex trafficking and to respond promptly by reporting suspicious activities to authorities.

O’Meara said it’s in the best interest of owners and managers of hotels and motels to conduct this training because there’s a developing legal trend of survivors and lawyers filing lawsuits against hotels and motels claiming reckless disregard for failing to properly oversee activities going on within their facilities.

Johnston Mayor Paula Dierenfeld said her community was the first in Iowa to pass an ordinance regulating massage-related businesses as a way to “root out” sex trafficking.

Belitsos said traffickers prey on young people who are habitual runaways or homeless people, although victims often are in their late teens or 20s when they are coerced into criminal activities that include prostitution and drug trafficking under force or threat of violence.

“It’s all driven by money,” said Belitsos. “ ... Today human trafficking is the fastest-growth crime in the world and right now it stands as the third highest-grossing profit.”

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