Scattered throughout the Wichita area – in the suburbs and strip malls and across the street from a school – red neon signs offer massages.
Inside some of these businesses, money changes hands for sex, police say.
Wichita police say they’ve had complaints since 2013 of some massage businesses that sell sexual acts and that some of these businesses are engaged in human trafficking.
Now police are asking city leaders to consider creating a city ordinance to regulate all massage businesses in the hopes of reducing human trafficking.
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In 2015, police conducted 24 investigations and arrested 22 people on suspicion of human trafficking at massage parlors, according to city documents.
No license required
It’s unclear how many massage businesses actually operate in Wichita or the state, because they are unregulated and don’t require licensing.
What’s even more unclear is the percentage that are engaging in illegal activities.
Kansas does not regulate massage businesses, but several cities have their own ordinances, primarily in the Kansas City metro area, according to city documents.
“It’s important to have some tools in place and some type of regulation in place to be supportive of existing businesses and address the human trafficking,” said Deputy Chief Hassan Ramzah. “We want to keep our community safe and eliminate victimization that occurs here.
“A lot of times the victims here, the young ladies or males as well, are entrapped and forced to participate in sexual acts.”
These kinds of crimes are trending locally and nationally, he said.
Wichita police have already met with massage business owners in the area about the proposed regulations, he said.
“The ordinance itself is not going to eliminate (trafficking) in its totality, because we know from previous investigations there are other avenues, but it will take away those opportunities for those businesses that decide to locate in Wichita and set up these businesses illegally,” Ramzah said.
City leaders will discuss the proposal during a City Council workshop on Tuesday.
Some workers are from other countries and others are American citizens who are trafficked, Ramzah said.
Victims who are not U.S. citizens can receive some protections and visas to stay in the U.S., said Bailey Brackin, assistant director for Wichita State University’s Center for Combating Human Trafficking.
An estimated 300 to 400 youths in Wichita are at risk to become victims of sexual exploitation, including trafficking, each year, Brackin said.
“It absolutely occurs in massage parlors, and one way to combat it is to address them,” she said.
Scope of problem debated
Some think the proposed ordinance by the city, and the reasoning for it, is exaggerating the situation.
Defense lawyer Charles O’Hara has represented clubs and establishments in Wichita for more than 40 years, including some clients who have been charged with human trafficking. He doesn’t think the city really has a human trafficking problem and said police are using it as an excuse to try to outlaw those businesses.
O’Hara said he’s interested in seeing how many convictions for human trafficking have actually come from massage parlor arrests.
“Why is the city getting involved in something that’s already against the law? For whatever reason, the city of Wichita wants to regulate everything even when there’s not a serious problem. ... Twenty arrests for a city our size doesn’t make much sense unless they’re really serious offenses.”
Last year, a bill was introduced in the Kansas Legislature to license massage businesses, but it never went anywhere.
And it likely won’t go anywhere again this year, says Les Snyder, regional developer for Massage Envy, which has 11 locations in Kansas, including two in Wichita.
The company supports licensing for massage therapy, Snyder said.
“We would prefer that it was a state licensure, but in the absence, we welcome licensing at the local level,” said Snyder, who thinks licensing requirements are not an undue burden as long as businesses have input.
Without state and local regulations on the massage business, Kansas becomes a “haven” for businesses engaging in illegal behavior, he said.
“Municipalities bringing in regulation is a step in the right direction, but the problem is it isn’t driving it out of the state, it’s simply driving it out of the cities” farther out along Kansas’ vast highways, he said.
Carrie Collins, president of the Kansas Association of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, says her organization is neutral about licensing.
“We just want to make sure it’s fair for the people who practice massage in the state of Kansas legitimately,” she said. “That’s what we go to school for and that’s how we earn a living, and unfortunately, prostitution and human trafficking are associated with our business.”
She said it’s hard sometimes for consumers to know which massage businesses are legitimate.
Statewide legislation may have stalled because lawmakers have no way to know how many massage therapists are actually practicing in the state, she said.
“Personally, I want the state to recognize I’m a legitimate business here practicing massage,” Collins said.
Proposed city regulations
The city’s proposed regulations would require owners of massage businesses or their employees to:
▪ Be at least 18 and a citizen or U.S. resident
▪ Not have convictions for felony/moral turpitude for the past five years
▪ Not be a registered sex offender
▪ Comply with building, fire, health and zoning laws
▪ Pay a business license fee of $200 every two years
▪ Pay a therapist permit fee of $75 every two years
In addition, new therapists must do one of the following: pass a massage and bodywork licensing exam, hold a national certificate for therapeutic massage and bodywork or have an official transcript for 500 instructor hours or 150 hours from an accredited institution.
Existing therapists must do one of the following: have 500 hours of instruction from a massage therapy school of legal authority, receive 300 hours training in the past three years, have 10 hours per week of practice over the past five years or pass national certification. Affidavits and documentation are required.
Source: City documents