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Crosscurrents

Can Oakland hotels help catch sex traffickers?

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In recent years it has become more and more common for arrangements to buy and sell sex to be made online and behind closed doors. A lot of the time it’s not among consenting adults — it’s forced prostitution or sex trafficking. So, anti-sex trafficking groups and local law enforcement are looking to recruit eyes and ears right where these crimes are taking place: at the approximately 1,500 hotels in the Bay Area.

Betty Ann Hagenau, Executive Director at the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, has held training sessions for hotel employees to recognize and report the signs of sex trafficking. She says hotel employees are in a unique position to see who is using their rooms, and more importantly, how they are using them. The thing is, although many hotel workers have heard the term “sex trafficking,” they don’t know much about it. Hagenau says after just a short 40- to 50-minute training session, a lot of hotel personnel will realize that they have seen something.

She says front desk employees could be paying attention to how people check in, whether they use cash or credit cards, if they are willing to show their I.D. Housekeeping might notice whether there is anything that looks suspicious inside the rooms. So, one thing the training does is teach employees how to work together; each department might see different warning signs that add up to a big picture.

The Oakland Courtyard Marriott is one hotel that has participated in training sessions. But there is still a lot of stigma around the issue. They turned down requests to be interviewed, even though Marriott International has signed the ECPAT code — a code of conduct that stands for Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking. That means they’ve pledged to train all their employees at all their locations around the world.

Hagenau says many hotels have signed the code, but they haven’t necessarily gotten around to the trainings. She is trying to speed up the process, and it’s not always easy to get hotels to commit. They are cautious because to some extent, by signing the code and participating in trainings, it's an admittance that there is potentially illicit activity happening on their properties. But the truth is, it happens everywhere.

There are some hotels where this type of criminal activity is obvious, but according to Elizabeth Smith, who was a victim of domestic child sex trafficking and is now an advocate for commercially sexually exploited youth, often where the crime is taking place might just come down to price. Smith says, “If the exchange happens in the car, it's not going to cost as much, whereas if you go to a motel room it's going to be a little bit more. If you go to a hotel room, then it's going to be more expensive.”

She says what’s really important to keep in mind is that as long as there are people buying and selling sex there will be vulnerable children in the middle of it who are getting penalized in some way. And, the youth who are being exploited come from all parts of the community.

Teresa Drenick, the spokesperson with the Oakland District Attorney’s office, says a lot has changed in the community and local law enforcement in recent years. A case she worked on over 20 years ago opened her eyes to the issue. A young girl was arrested for prostitution — it wasn’t called sex trafficking then — and they needed her help in order to prosecute her exploiter.

The girl had gone out with friends when a man picked them up and took them to a motel room in Oakland. She was held there for days. Drenick had to ask the girl exactly what happened and what she did with the men who purchased her. Drenick says she will never forget how upset and embarrassed the young girl was — that it was making her physically sick to talk about it. Drenick herself was only 26 at the time. She couldn’t believe it.

Now, she works with the H.E.A.T. Watch unit of the Oakland DA’s office. They collaborate with law enforcement, prosecute offenders, and hold trainings to raise public awareness. Drenick says that learning about the issue is the first step in combating sex trafficking.

“If you see something, and in your gut you know it’s not right, don’t just sit back and think someone else will take care of it.”

It looks like all their hard work is paying off. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, reports of human trafficking in California have doubled since 2012. It’s not necessarily that there is more trafficking, but more likely shows that people are noticing and doing something about it. It’s a good start, but for those working on the issue, the end goal is for sex trafficking to be completely eradicated.