Johnston Massage Therapy Ordinance Helps Stops Sex Trafficking

This past June, the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery asked Iowa’s anti-trafficking coalitions and advocates to urge their local city councils to adopt ordinances to crack down on human trafficking taking place in some of Iowa’s massage therapy businesses. This Network call to action was due to a recognition both nationally and here in Iowa that some massage therapy businesses are being used as a front for prostitution and sex trafficking. Many of these illicit massage businesses are advertising on hidden websites. This is the vehicle by which traffickers attract their customers who then become sexual abusers of trafficked victims.

In recent years, Iowa arrests for prostitution, human trafficking or working without a massage license have been made in Marion, Mason City, the Quad Cities, Sioux City, Urbandale, Ames, Johnston and West Des Moines. Recently, in Dubuque Iowa there were two arrests for human trafficking and two fraudulent massage businesses were closed. Several women were rescued and are receiving services and safety.

Since the time that the Network made its massage ordinance call to action, we have heard from anti-trafficking allies in the following cities where local efforts are underway to approach city council’s; Cedar Rapids, Fort Dodge, Marshalltown, Dubuque, Ames, Des Moines, Sioux City, Clive, Windsor Heights, Ankeny, Newton, Davenport, and Bettendorf. Progress towards an ordinance is slow and more cities and towns still need to be approached. Please let the Network Administrator, George Belitsos, know of any significant progress or if your city should be added to this list.

A recent Des Moines Register watchdog probe found that more than two dozen businesses in Des Moines area were trying to lure massage customers with suggestive photos and advertising on such online sites as backpage and Craigslist. These sites have frequently been used for sex trafficking and prostitution. The listings say “new pretty girls coming soon” and “free table showers,” “new girl new feeling” and “she care for you right from stressed out to smiling finish.” Photos show women dressed in high heels, lingerie and thongs. The National Human Trafficking Hotline program, Polaris, identified Des Moines as a top area for concern after monitoring sex solicitation on paid internet sites.

The City of Johnston is still the only Iowa community that has adopted and implemented a local massage ordinance. In recognition of this outstanding contribution to fighting sex trafficking, the Iowa NAHT recently recognized the city of Johnston, its mayor, and chief of police with a plaque shown below:

City of Johnston Iowa certificate

johnston-receives-certificateTo bring statewide attention and honor to their contributions, the Network asked Governor Kim Reynolds to present the plaque to the city of Johnston during the administration’s weekly press conference. Following the governor’s press conference, the photo shown here was taken. Those shown include from left to right Dennis McDaniel, Johnston Police Chief, a local police officer who enforces the Johnston massage ordinance, mayor Paula Dierenfeld holding the plaque, and the chair of the board of directors of the Iowa Network, Dr. George Belitsos.

The mayor of the city of Johnston talked about how enforcement has led to the closing of 2 illicit massage businesses and prevention of a third business from even opening. A recent KCCI new story about the effectiveness of the Johnston ordinance can be viewed here:

The mayor also warned that as these illicit businesses leave Johnston, they may quickly move to another nearby community where enforcement and oversight may not exist. The mayor encouraged other Iowa cities and towns to adopt similar massage business ordinances in order to root out prostitution and trafficking and thereby restore the credibility of the massage therapy industry.

This award has now also received some national attention with the National Human Trafficking Hotline sponsor, Polaris, tweeting the following article:

state-capitol-meetingFollowing the plaque presentation there was a meeting at the State Capitol Building with approximately 15 central Iowa law enforcement officers to discuss both the city massage ordinance initiative along with the Hotel/Motel Employee Education Project. These two important statewide initiatives have been launched recently by the Iowa NAHT. Joining the law enforcement officers at the meeting was Roxann Ryan, Commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety. Within the DPS is the new Office to Combat Human Trafficking.

Johnston’s police chief encouraged law enforcement officers to join the city of Johnston in adopting effective massage business ordinances. The chief also offered to assist other law enforcement departments and cities, and Chief McDaniel is open to answering questions about the ordinance. Chief Dennis McDaniel can be contacted at the following email address:

The Johnston police department has published the following case studies of the two nefarious massage businesses it has closed as a result of enforcement of the city massage ordinance. Read Johnston Police Department case studies (PDF) here.