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North Suburban News

Local Communities Struggle With Human Trafficking

Jan 03, 2019 10:46PM ● By Dan Marra
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STONEHAM – Over the summer, Lucky Star Body Work, located along Main Street in Stoneham, was shut down and the owner – Geekin Ng – was indicted on sex trafficking charges.  Barely four months later, authorities raided the same establishment, now called Sunshine Spa & Massage, and arrested Dan T. Zheng who was also charged with human trafficking.

None of this comes as a surprise to Stephanie Clark, executive director of Amirah. Based in Woburn, the organization focuses its efforts on providing homes and support for victims of human trafficking.

“To hear something like that, there’s a lot of people that don’t believe it’s happening,” said Clark. “And they definitely don’t believe it’s happening in their community. But I’m not surprised.”

According to Clark, before it was seized by the government, there was a study that looked at the ads posted on Backpage – the online site that posted classified ads, including ads related to prostitution. Over a three-month period, most of the prostitution ads were based in Boston. The second most popular area in the country was the North Shore.

“These establishments are smart,” Clark said. “They go to where the buyers are. And the demographic are typically 40 year-old white men who have two kids at home and live in affluent suburbs.”

But it’s not easy shutting these illicit businesses, according to Stoneham Police Chief James McIntyre. The business may be shutdown, but they transfer the license to another party, as was the case with this Stoneham parlor. Additionally, these parlors that engage in prostitution are often labeled as “body works therapy”. It's a loophole human trafficking rings understand well. "Massage therapy" establishments are heavily regulated by the state licensing board, which requires regular inspections and licenses. However, "body works therapy" is not regulated and so it is not under the same strict rules and regulations.

“For massage therapy, there are regulations, but these body works establishments, they have no oversight,” Chief McIntyre said. “So, there’s a potential to have bad things go on at these locations.”

The state is starting to move towards addressing the problem, albeit slowly. A few years ago, Massachusetts passed a bill that gave local law enforcement agencies the power to go after human traffickers. Previously, only federal law enforcement had that authority.

There’s a current bill working its way through the house that would require the practice of “body works therapy” to be licensed, similarly to how “massage therapy” is licensed.  However, that bill has stalled in the House two previous times.

“It’s deeply disturbing that human trafficking is taking place in our own communities,” said State Senator Jason Lewis, who supported both bills. “These crimes prey on our society’s most vulnerable populations, and their effects on victims are both reprehensible and long-lasting.”

For Clark, there is more that communities and the local government can be doing to try and put a stop to these establishments, including hosting town halls in communities to educate the public. Clark also wants the state to focus punishment on the customers. Currently, any customer caught in these establishments pays a small fine and is free to leave.

“We need to go after the demand,” Clark said, referring to the men who are paying to have sex. “We need laws that go after those people. If you’re caught in one of these parlors it’s a slap on the wrist, it’s just a fine. There’s no jail time for men caught in these establishments. Their names are not put in the paper, they are not arrested, their wife and kids never find out. They just pay a fine and walk away.”

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