Saturday July 13, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Senior Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Lawmakers plan to work with police, prosecutors and others to examine the state's laws dealing with prostitution and human trafficking in the wake of high-profile cases involving day spas around Vermont.

The Cozy Spa and Green Spa in Bennington were searched by Bennington Police, FBI agents and Vermont State Police on May 7 as part of an investigation into prostitution and human trafficking. Authorities said as many as 10 women may have been forced to work in those spas.

One woman charged

So far, one woman has been charged with prostitution in Bennington. Other women whom police believe to be victims of human trafficking did not accept offers of help from a state task force that assists such victims.

According to a report in the Burlington-based newspaper Seven Days, police and prosecutors have cracked down on a handful of Asian massage parlors in Chittenden County. In those cases, the women believed by authorities to be victims also did not accept assistance.

Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said a meeting in Montpelier Wednesday with Secretary of State James Condos, Attorney General William Sorrell and the FBI, as well as local police and country prosecutors, focused on such spas.

Sears said the authorities discussed whether or not massage parlors should be licensed and regulated, and whether the state's laws dealing with prostitution and human trafficking are sufficient.

Condos is opposed to licensing massage therapists, according to Sears. The secretary of state cited a 2010 report that found that would not be cost-effective, he said.

Still, the House and Senate Government Operations Committees are likely to review the issue when the Legislature reconvenes in January, Sears said.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees will examine the effectiveness of laws pertaining to prostitution and human trafficking. Authorities have difficulty keeping up with the victims, who tend to disappear when investigations begin, Sears said.

"They spring up and then they're gone. The Senate and House Judiciary Committee agreed to look at the human trafficking issues and the services available," he said.

In Bennington, resources were in place when local police and the FBI searched the two spas. But the victims rejected assistance and were soon gone, Sears said.

"Bennington seemed to deal with it as best they could and trying to provide the services, even though the women refused it," he said. "It happened so fast and they're gone. The problem is that as soon as any word gets out they leave quickly. That's one of the things that we want to try and deal with. You want the victims to be able to avail themselves to the services that we put in place."

In Chittenden County, State's Attorney TJ Donovan has gone after landlords for allowing illegal activity in the spas. Sears said that approach is being "looked at as one way to deal with it."

However, there are issues with seeking criminal charges against landlords. "That can get difficult, too. Did the landlord know what was going on?" Sears said.

Laws dealing with human trafficking, which provide for assistance to victims, seem to be "in pretty good shape," he said. However, victims are often in the country illegally and refuse assistance because they do not want to be deported.

Law enforcement is "not interested in prosecuting" the victims, who are "so afraid because they're here illegally," Sears said.

Prostitution statutes, meanwhile, are "pretty archaic," he said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami