Vermont bill would require training to recognize human trafficking

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MONTPELIER — A bill co-sponsored by Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan would require training sessions for food service and lodging industry employees on how to recognize and report incidents of human trafficking.

The bill, H.161, also would require "that various businesses and establishments post model notices on how victims of human trafficking can access help and services."

"Victims of human trafficking often do not know where to turn for assistance and can be too intimidated to ask for help," Sullivan said. "This bill requires specified businesses and other establishments to post a notice informing the public and victims of human trafficking of telephone hotline numbers to seek help or report unlawful activity."

The Dorset Democrat said the proposed legislation follows a bill she co-sponsored last session to help forge a coordinated, statewide response by the courts and government agencies to an often below-the-radar issue many are unaware exists in Vermont.

"Human trafficking often goes undetected because traffickers purposefully isolate victims from the public," Sullivan said. "The new notice provision is intended to expose the problem of human trafficking to the public and alert victims to resources. This bill also requires specified businesses to provide staff training. By mandating these postings, victims of human trafficking will have essential information on where to obtain assistance."

H.161 would require the state Department of Health to adopt rules establishing one or more educational programs to train employees of lodging and food service establishments in the identification and reporting of suspected human trafficking activity — and require that these establishments provide training for employees.

In addition, lodging and food service businesses would have to provide the health department with proof of employee training upon request.

The bill also requires "that various businesses and establishments post model notices on how victims of human trafficking can access help and services."

"As the ski season ramps up and the hospitality and hotel businesses receive more people, these trainings can help spot a trafficking victim," Sullivan said. "Guests who pay in cash or request a room with access to an exit may be a red flag. Some businesses are prime locations for people to be trafficked."

She added, "Our students work in these industries as well, and modern-day slavery is far more pervasive than Vermonters think."

Notices required

Under the proposed legislation, the Vermont health commissioner would consult with the Attorney General's Office to develop one of more training programs for employees in the designated business sectors.

The bill also requires the commissioner to consult with the AG's office to develop a model notice about human trafficking to also inform victims that is available. The notices must be posted in a conspicuous area near the entrances of businesses and in other public places.

Listed are first- and third-class alcoholic beverage license holders; airports, bus stations, public rest areas; truck stops, hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers; farm labor contractor sites, and massage and adult entertainment businesses.

Administrators of public or private primary or secondary schools also are required to post the notices, as are the owners of lodging businesses, or a tattoo business, and any person who obtains a municipal permit to hold a public gathering or other event conducted on property that is open to the public.

The governmental agency that regulates the business or establishment would monitor and enforce compliance to the posting requirements and would issue notice of noncompliance and of possible civil penalties if the issue is not corrected within 30 days.

Penalties would be not more than $200 for a first offense and not more than $500 for a second or subsequent offense.

School administrators and people who obtain a municipal permit for an event would not be subject to possible penalties.

Under the bill provisions, the health commissioner "shall consider whether the notice should be available in a language in addition to English," and make the model notice available for download on the department's website.

The legislation, if enacted, would take effect on July 1.

"No business wants to be known as the one where trafficking occurs," Sullivan said. "Training programs can also protect the businesses if they are sued by someone who has been trafficked on their sites. The businesses can now go to trial with the claim that they had a plan and took steps to prevent trafficking."

She said training "is part of the process of getting the businesses to be eyes open about what can happen, even if it isn't a slam-dunk. The more legitimate businesses, such as banks, hotels, Airbnb's, airlines and the other establishments listed in [H.161] that can block traffickers from surfing on their assets, the more at-risk traffickers will become."

She added, "This bill looks behind the trespassing, loitering and domestic abuse calls to see people hiding in plain sight, and business has a significant role to play. Vermont businesses are being exploited and there is a positive role that they can play on an ugly issue."

Sullivan is the co-founder and former executive director of Building Empowerment By Stopping Trafficking, which has assisted more than 3,000 victims of human trafficking in 24 states and eight nations.

"Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery that occurs in every state," she said after Gov. Phil Scott signed the related bill last year.

That legislation, she said, would allow organizations to "work closely with service providers, law enforcement, and other professionals in Vermont to serve victims and survivors of trafficking, respond to human trafficking cases, and share information and resources."

Other lead sponsors for the current bill are Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, and Jean O'Sullivan, D-Burlington.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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