MN hotels keep a sharp eye out for sex trafficking

November 28, 2018

By the end of the month, Minnesota hotels will be newly equipped to detect the sometimes-subtle signs of sex trafficking.

On Monday, Laura Sutherland, regional manager for Safe Harbor Minnesota, a program of the Minnesota Department of Health, led an hour-long sex trafficking training session at Hilton Home2Suites. The training is now required for all hotels and employees in Minnesota.

In the fight against sex trafficking, hotel and motel workers are on the front lines, helping to identify the signs of trafficking so law enforcement can investigate and intervene, Sutherland said.

One such worker, Tiffany Cable, remembers a time when she intervened, seven years ago.

The housekeeping supervisor at Home2Suites encountered a couple with two children at a previous hotel several times.

After multiple friendly conversations, she noticed that the couple never referred to the children as theirs, and did not explain their presence at all.

It could have been nothing.

But Cable alerted a manager, who presumably checked on the couple, and never saw them at the hotel again.

Now Cable, who’s been in the lodging industry for seven years, keeps an eye out for anything strange when going about her business.

She hasn’t encountered a potential trafficker since, but knows she could.

“A lot of this happens in hotels,” she said. “It really is a high problem.”

Other Home2Suites workers remembered visitors who returned to the front desk for multiple keys for visitors in the same room, or side doors that were always propped open (possibly for covert entry or to avoid security cameras).

Over the course of an hour, the training broke down some stereotypes about sex trafficking. Among those: It can extend to all genders, races, and ages, it’s not limited to foreign nationals in the U.S., and there aren’t always visible signs of violence or coercion.

And although it may seem like a far-away concern, sex trafficking happens in Rochester.

Some time ago, at a downtown hotel in Rochester, staff noticed a steady stream of men visiting one room. When a manager knocked, he was greeted with what clearly was a sex trafficking situation.

If hotel staff believe they have a sex trafficker in the hotel, they should avoid confrontation and call 911, Sutherland cautioned. But that’s one example of noticing the signs of trafficking and taking action.

Rochester police are “a good partner” in prosecuting traffickers, Sutherland added. Employees who call with suspicions can request low-key presence to avoid spooking guests.

The MN Safe Harbor Law, which went into effect in 2014, classifies sexually exploited youth as victims in need of services — not criminals.

It’s rare, though, that victims will self-identify, Sutherland said. Of the 300-some people Safe Harbor Minnesota has helped in the last four years, fewer than five sought that help on their own.

Which is why it’s important for staff to know the potential signs of trafficking and call police — quickly — in case it’s the only chance Safe Harbor has to help.

After hotel staff are trained, the number of calls to law enforcement about potential sex trafficking situations goes up, Sutherland said.

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