As revelers gather for the Tri-City Water Follies this week, one group aims to stop a decidedly unauthorized activity: Selling minors for sex.
A church-based nonprofit is teaming with Tri-City hoteliers to train staff to recognize and report human trafficking rings that bring minors to town to work as hotel-based prostitutes during special events.
The Stop Under Age Domestic Sex Trafficking Project or SUDS is a five-year effort by Mirror Ministries, an outreach of Richland’s Bethel Church, to draw attention to the traffickers who travel the Pacific Northwest to sell sex with with young women and girls.
This year, 44 Tri-City area hotel signed on for SUDS training for managers, maids and front desk workers. Trafficking is a year-round effort, but SUDS says Water Follies helps put it in the spotlight.
“Boat race weekend is our largest weekend. Every hotel is packed,” said Tricia MacFarlan, executive director of Mirror Ministries.
Prostitution is more closely associated with the drug trade than Water Follies, said Sgt. Ken Lattin, spokesman for the Kennewick Police Department. But the department welcomes the increase in awareness.
He said police regularly field calls from hotels, but it’s difficult to make arrests in a world where meetings are prearranged online and security questions are used.
“If you don’t know the right things to say, you’re not getting in,” he said.
23 human trafficking reports in 2015
6 human trafficking reports in 2014
It may be difficult to make a prostitution arrest, but drugs are a different matter and if a worker is a minor, police can classify her as a runaway and remove her from the scene.
Tri-City hotel operators are eager to prevent it at their properties, said Kris Watkins, president of Visit Tri-Cities.
The tourism agency usually focuses on the cheerier side of the hospitality industry, like jobs and economic impact. But, Watkins, said local operators take their responsibility to monitor for trafficking seriously.
Trafficking is a global issue, but the Tri-City lodging industry is close-knit. Operators share information among themselves, she said.
Trafficking is an under-reported crime in Washington state, but cases are on the rise. There were 23 reports of human trafficking in 2015, compared with six cases reported in 2014, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Only one case was reported locally, in Benton County. There were none in Franklin County.
All the 2015 cases involved victims coerced by force or other means to participate in commercial sex acts. All but one of 23 victims were female, 17 were under the age of 18. There were 10 arrests.
Signs a hotel is being used for commercial sex include people leaving rooms infrequently or not at all or at odd hours, a person monitoring the hallway, a regular flow of guests using the room, loud noises and men waiting in the lobby, outside the room or by a back door.
Constant use of a “Do Not Disturb” sign is another tip-off, as is seeing fellow guests asking for food, help, money or attempting to negotiate for sexual services.
Emergencies or life threatening situations should be reported to 911 along with any suspicion that a minor is being exploited. That will alert officers that there’s more to the call than a run-of-the-mill disturbance.
Hotel guests should report their suspicions to front desk staff, as well, MacFarlan said.
Bethel Church got involved with human trafficking about seven years ago when several members decided to pursue justice issues. They partnered with an organization in Cambodia, then decided to bring their focus closer to home.
They developed an exhibit to highlight what trafficking looks like called SOLD: The Human Trafficking Experience. They expected to display it at church, then pack it up. Instead, they started getting requests and it has become a traveling exhibit, currently on loan in New Mexico.
A new service helps survivors of trafficking. The group recently received $5,000 from Benton County to educate area students, businesses and agencies about human trafficking and to identify victims earlier.