In California, the most populous state, thousands of massage therapists provide professional, therapeutic massage services to clients every day.
But the state’s massage therapists are dogged by a big problem: criminals using massage as a front for sex crimes.
This situation isn’t unique to California.
However, a new partnership between state law enforcement and the entity that administers voluntary massage certification is a novel weapon in the fight against human trafficking.
The partnership between the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC) gives the council the opportunity to educate the association’s 650 members about what constitutes legitimate massage therapy services and the Massage Therapy Act.
Those members—police chiefs and their sworn seconds-in-command throughout the state—may then in turn educate their staffs and communities.
CAMTC has also created a Sexually Suggestive Advertising Task Force as a tool to weed out criminals posing as massage therapists.
MASSAGE Magazine spoke with California Massage Therapy Council’s CEO Ahmos Netanel, California Police Chiefs Association Executive Director Leslie McGill, CAE, and City of Vacaville Police Chief John Carli to learn more about the problems related to illegitimate massage practices, assess the scope of the partnership and the purpose of the task force, and report on how the work being done in California may benefit the state’s professional massage therapists.
The Problem with Illicit Massage Establishments
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, illicit massage and spa businesses are the number-one cover for sex-related human trafficking in California, ahead of hotel/motel-based venues, escort services and online advertising.
Human trafficking and efforts to combat it are growing throughout the U.S., according to various governmental agencies.
In 2010, for example, human trafficking investigations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement numbered 651; in 2015, they numbered 1,034, according to the “Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons” for fiscal year 2015, the most recent report available.
According to McGill, police agencies throughout the state are especially concerned with sex traffickers using the massage industry as a cover.
“As the massage industry has grown and grown and increased in legitimacy, there’s always a bad element out there,” she said. “There’s been an explosion from what it used to be, say, 10 to 15 years ago versus now.”
People are trafficked throughout California in a variety of ways, not just through massage establishments, she added, often by organized crime syndicates.
In Vacaville, a city of 98,000 people about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, traditional prostitution stings used to result in a handful of arrests of sex workers and johns, but didn’t stem the tide of human trafficking-related sex crimes, according to Vacaville Police Chief John Carli.
He said that after a sting, the traffickers would simply change their business name and location, while arrested prostitutes were charged as the suspects in those crimes.
Now, with Vacaville having adopted a local ordinance that requires massage therapists obtain CAMTC certification, as well as having received CAMTC training for his force, Carli says his department has new tools for combatting human trafficking, and that members of the force understand that prostitutes are usually victims of sex crimes themselves.
“The success that we’ve seen with the clarification by CAMTC within our local ordinance has been very successful, and appreciated by the well-meaning, law-abiding establishments that don’t want the negative reputation that some of these illegitimate establishments bring to the industry,” said Carli.
CAMTC entered into a strategic partnership relationship with the California Police Chiefs Association for one year, McGill said. The partnership was finalized in late February.
In exchange, CAMTC was the premier sponsor of the California Police Chiefs’ annual training symposium held March 18–22 in Long Beach, attended by 300 association members, and may also publish information in the association’s publication, California Police Chief.
The California Massage Therapy Council will also have a page on the association’s website, and a message and link that will run in the association president’s message.
CAMTC had a booth at the conference’s exhibit hall, and Netanel and CAMTC’s Director of Professional Standards Division Rick McElroy co-presented a workshop titled “Massage Establishments: Powerful Tools to Eradicate Illicit Conduct” to attendees.
The partnership helps foster better communication between CAMTC and the chiefs, said both Netanel and McGill.
“For the most part, most of our members weren’t aware of the resources CAMTC offers [prior to the workshop]” McGill said. “As a strategic partner we can push information out to our membership about the services they offer—like information that can say, ‘Here is someone to contact to set up training.'”
Since 2016, state law has stipulated that one member of CAMTC’s board of directors be a representative of the California Police Chiefs Association, unless the association chooses not to exercise this right to appoint. Police Chief Sean Thuilliez of Beaumont (Riverside County) was appointed to the board in early April.
CAMTC’s communication and cooperation with law enforcement have yielded “tremendous benefits” over the past few years, Netanel said.
“Now the partnership is more formal and we have a much more robust communication with police chiefs,” he added.
There have been many situations where applicants or certificate holders engaged in unprofessional conduct or illegal conduct that CAMTC was able to discover through cooperation with local law enforcement agencies, Netanel said.
“Officers provided sworn declarations of what they witnessed and we were able to take action against that person with the input of officers,” he explained.
“We are not a state agency [and] we have abilities that state agencies and governmental agencies cannot use but we can, so it’s important that law enforcement officers are aware of those protocols,” Netanel said.
For example, he said, a person may have been arrested and charged for prostitution and then have a criminal trial and be found not guilty. CAMTC may still be able to revoke this person based on an officer’s declaration, depending on the conduct engaged in, because CAMTC’s standards of evidence are not the same as the higher criminal standards.
“We are a private entity and not required by law to meet the same requirements that law enforcement agencies are required to meet for criminal convictions,” Netanel said. “If a person is found not guilty, we may still be able to revoke the person.”
He said CAMTC can, in less than four months, act much more swiftly to revoke than can a state board, which might take up to three years to revoke.
“It’s not that we are better or more talented, it’s simply that state boards are bound to a completely different set of rules,” said Netanel.
As of the beginning of 2018, the California Massage Therapy Council had revoked or denied more than 9,000 massage professionals who either violated the state’s Massage Therapy Act or who did not meet its prescribed standards, said Netanel.
“These are people who allegedly went to massage school and met the requirements and graduated from massage school and applied for certification, and they were either denied or they engaged in conduct that does not meet our standards and we revoked, suspended or disciplined them,” he said.
In California, certification is voluntary, meaning it is not required by the state; however, according to CAMTC’s FAQs page, ” … many cities and counties have replaced their requirement for a city massage permit, usually issued by the police or sheriff’s “department, with a requirement for CAMTC certification.”
CAMTC develops and offers training to local government officials, with a special focus on city attorneys, on CAMTC’s certification, school approval program, and the use of revocable registration. CAMTC also performs outreach to city and county managers and elected officials. CAMTC also approves massage schools.
The exact number of massage therapists practicing in the state isn’t known as there isn’t a state agency tracking that number.
However, there are currently a little more than 51,000 CAMTC-certified massage therapists or practitioners in the state, said Netanel. (The latter credential wasn’t offered after 2014, but those who earned that certification may still be re-certified as CMPs.)
More than 210 cities and counties now require that a massage therapist obtain certification, Netanel said, which requires 500 hours of education and passing a CAMTC-approved exam, in order to practice legally. There are 58 counties and 482 cities in the state.
The Task Force
The CAMTC has for nine years had protocols in place for certificate holders or applicants who engage in sexually suggestive adverting, which has been specifically prohibited by law in California since 2015.
The new Sexually Suggestive Advertising Task Force was created to establish protocols and budgets, as well as cooperation with local law enforcement agencies to move the process from a complaint-based system to a proactive protocol where CAMTC will actively seek to determine if any applicants or certificate holders engage in this activity, said Netanel.
“The protocol is if an applicant or certificate holder engages in massage-related advertising that is sexually suggestive they can be disciplined,” he said. “In most cases it means a denial for an applicant and a revocation for a certificate holder.”
Netanel said sexually suggestive advertising is “anything that suggests sex in advertising,” and the State of California’s Business Code for applicants and certificate holders for CAMTC certification states that “engaging in sexually suggestive advertising related to massage services” is one type of unprofessional conduct in violation of the state’s business and professions code for the healing arts.
The cooperation of law enforcement is imperative to the task force’s effectiveness because those agencies are “on the ground,” said Netanel.
“We have to make sure that a specific ad is specifically connected to a specific individual,” he explained.
“[CAMTC is] not the people who go into massage businesses and identify the massage provider with a specific ad—so to be effective it is very imperative that the work is done both on the local level on the ground and a state level, which is what we are doing,” Netanel added.
Benefits to Massage Therapists
The California Massage Therapy Council’s closer relationship with law enforcement will benefit the state’s massage therapists, said Netanel, because it will better educate the leaders of law enforcement about the legitimate massage professionals and “the more educated law enforcement is about the massage profession, the better it is for the public and the profession.”
He added, “It’s unfortunate that there are many situations in which this profession has been, for all intents and purposes, hijacked by unscrupulous individuals who use massage [with] subterfuge for illicit acts like prostitution and human trafficking—[and] creating a partnership and working closely with law enforcement in minimizing or eradicating this phenomenon is better for the therapeutic massage profession.”
The association’s executive director agrees that the partnership is positive and could help in the battle against illicit massage establishments.
“It’s been a great relationship,” McGill said. “It’s been a great educational opportunity to learn about the industry and regulations and everything CAMTC is trying to do and for them to understand what our chiefs are doing.”
CAMTC protects the public by elevating the massage profession, Netanel added.
“Everything we do revolves around elevating the profession,” he said, “so that legitimate practicing massage professionals are not penalized by illegitimate people who use their profession as a cover for illegal activity.”
About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. Her recent articles for massagemag.com include “Texas Massage Therapists Reach Out After Hurricane Harvey,” and “[Analysis]: Massage Therapy Has Grown in National Cancer Institute-Designated health Systems.”
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