On Tuesday a group called Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking (COAST) held its latest meeting in a hotel ballroom in Portland, Oregon. About 60 strip club employees and managers were in attendance, most of them exotic dancers. So were two special federal agents — Erin Burke and Rene Schlegel from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
One of the most unusual things about COAST is its odd alliance with two agencies of the US government: ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The feds have been working with the project for the last four years, ostensibly as a way to keep an eye on the legal businesses that some see as potential feeders for trafficking.
VICE News reached out to DHS and ICE for this article, but they weren't able to provide comment or explain how many trafficking busts had come from the collaboration with COAST. Special Agent Bill Williger said in June however: "The relationship between HSI and COAST has opened a door that was previously closed in combating human trafficking."
Williger leads training sessions on how to detect signs that a dancer might be trafficked. Those clues might include an individual or group being dropped off and picked up by the same man every day, "unusual looking tattoos," or signs of physical abuse.
COAST brochures warn of other signs, such as if a dancer's ID is held or pay picked up by someone else, or if she seems fearful and lacks a social life.
The idea is that strip club owners and employees would then report the suspected trafficked dancers to the feds. COAST co-founder Angelina Spencer told VICE News she did not know how many trafficking victims have been reported as a result of the trainings.
"They don't give us that information," Spencer said of the Homeland Security agents that COAST urges strip club employees to contact. What COAST does is educate and provide the industry with a direct link to government investigators who are regularly on the lookout for traffickers.
According to US law, sex trafficking is defined partly by abuse and coercion related to forcing someone into the commercial sex trade. Anyone under the age of 18 is automatically considered a trafficking victim if they are working as a prostitute. Another part of the law refers to debt bondage, when a trafficker induces debt onto a person and then makes them do sex work until it is paid off.
Most of the strip club owners behind COAST have run into legal trouble of their own. Many of the clubs were subject to dancer lawsuits alleging that management made them hand over hundreds of dollars in "fees" and took a portion of their tips. And many a stripper has complained that house fees are debt-inducing scams that force girls to prostitute in back rooms just to cover the cost of working.
The Industry Leaders Behind COAST
The majority of the board members of COAST's backing group, the Association of Club Entrepreneurs (ACE), have been sued by their own employees for violations of labor law including wage theft, intimidation, charging debt-inducing illegal fees, and even sexual harassment. And all but one of the lawsuits I found was settled in the years since COAST was founded in 2009.
Some of those lawsuits were massive. ACE board member Spearmint Rhino had to pay out an almost $13 million settlement in 2012. Another huge payout of $11.3 million came from a Michigan lawsuit alleging wage theft at 72 clubs around the country that were affiliated with Deja Vu, including Deja Vu clubs, Gold Club, Little Darlings, and Larry Flynt's Hustler Clubs.
Other ACE board members who have been subject to lawsuits from their employees include Rick's Cabaret, VCG Holding, The Men's Club, Sapphire's Las Vegas, and Delilah's Gentlemen's Club.
In fact, one of COAST's co-founders, Michael Ocello, got involved in anti-trafficking efforts after the Illinois club he owned was raided by federal agents. Ocello turned out to be clean, but the fact that most ACE members have had brushes with the courts begs the question of whether COAST is just a public relations move designed to clean up the image of a battered industry.
'We're not doing this because we think trafficking is a strip club problem. We're doing it because it's a growing US problem.'
Not so, said Spencer. She told VICE News that the rash of lawsuits against strip clubs has become a "cottage industry" in which attorneys go after low-hanging fruit they know will pay off.
"Most of them had been sued because it's lucrative for the plaintiffs attorneys," said Spencer, who is both a former dancer and a former club owner. "A club owner takes all the risks, in terms of zoning and taxes. Then a young lady decides she's going to misbehave that day and the club takes the black mark."
In 2011 a Dallas Observer article described in-depth how "the independent contractor system, at least for strip clubs, is suddenly taking heavy fire," reporting on an increasing rash of lawsuits across the country. "If the 1990s were the crest of a stripper-lawsuit wave, what's happening now looks more like a tsunami," reported the Observer.
Spencer told VICE News that COAST has trained approximately 5,000 people over four years, and worked with more than 225 clubs. But she's careful to add that she doesn't think strip clubs are necessarily more likely to see trafficked women and girls than other industries.
"We're not doing this because we think trafficking is a strip club problem. We're doing it because it's a growing US problem," she said.
It's also a growing international problem. In 2012 the International Labor Organization estimated that 4.5 million people were victims of sex trafficking worldwide. In the US, the exact numbers are hard to come by, but a hotline at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center alone tracked 9,298 separate cases of trafficking from 2007-12.
Convictions in trafficking cases nearly doubled worldwide, according to the State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, with 9,460 convictions for trafficking in 2013, up from 5,808 in 2006. Most of those convictions were related to sex trafficking.
As awareness of sex trafficking increases, so do critical voices that say trafficking victims are often mishandled by law enforcement. And that could make strip club employees think twice about handing their co-workers over to the feds.
ICE Accused of Mishandling Sex Trafficking Victims
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 41 percent of sex trafficking victims in the US are actually US citizens. But the women and girls brought into the country from all over the world face the worst interactions with law enforcement due to their immigration status.
COAST's collaboration with ICE raises eyebrows among human rights advocates who say the agency isn't exactly known for "saving" sex trafficking victims. Rather, they tend to throw them in detention facilities.
In a 2010 open letter to the US Department of State, Human Rights Watch researchers described multiple cases of trafficking victims being held in ICE detention facilities, even when they were underage.
Meghan Rhoad, one of the researchers who authored the letter, told VICE News that ICE still detains victims of sex trafficking. About a month age, Rhoad spoke with a woman who had been trafficked from West Africa through multiple countries, eventually being forced across the US border into Texas. When she escaped her captors there, she was picked up by border patrol and jailed in an ICE facility.
"She had multiple interviews with ICE officers where she talked about the trafficking, but they didn't find her credible," Rhoad said, adding that the victim was "suicidal" while in detention. "They just didn't believe her. Ultimately a judge ruled in her favor and awarded her a T visa. The question is why it was so necessary to keep her detained."
'It is not possible to have a credible, reliable witness until you have a victim that feels safe and secure.'
The T visa was created in 2000 to allow trafficking victims to stay in the US, either because they would face violence at home or because they needed to stay to assist with an investigation. It allows a recipient to remain in the country for up to four years, at which point they can apply for permanent status.
American Gateways, a Texas-based non-profit that provides legal assistance to immigrants and refugees, regularly encounters sex trafficking victims locked away in ICE detention centers. Once a week, their lawyers head to the all-female T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas to give "Know Your Rights" trainings to the inmates.
"There's a real discrepancy in the national guidelines that are issued regarding the treatment of trafficking victims in detention and what we see on the ground," Stephanie Taylor, a staff attorney at American Gateways, told VICE News. "It takes anywhere from two to three months after we've identified a victim before they are released from custody."
Taylor said trafficking victims typically end up in detention after the house they are being held gets raided, usually in the middle of the night.
"A house gets raided by these armed agents, usually men, and then you're being grilled by a male official in a freezing holding cell who asks you how you got here, how much you paid to get here," Taylor said, "The assumption is that you're not trafficked. The interview is highly adversarial."
At Tuesday's COAST meeting, a slideshow laid out points of the "HSI Victim-Centered Response." One said: "It is not possible to have a credible, reliable witness until you have a victim that feels safe and secure."
According to the advocates working at ground level, the idea that victims feel safe and secure in ICE custody is a joke. Despite official assurances of a victim-centered approach, there seems to be a gap between the mandate and day-to-day activity.
Taylor said that border patrol should implement in-house guidelines on how to screen for trafficking. Some women might not realize trafficking is illegal in the US, while others are simply too traumatized to say anything. But identifying victims and making sure they get help applying for a T visa is vital to their safety.
"I've seen individuals express fear of returning to their home countries because they know the people who got them trafficked in the first place," said Taylor. "Often the network of traffickers has all of your identifying information, like the names of your family members."
But they don't want to stay in custody either, especially after experiencing long periods of detainment by traffickers. Taylor said she's currently working on a case in which a Hutto detainee was identified in early September, through interviews with multiple organizations, as a sex trafficking victim.
On September 19, American Gateways and Refugee Services of Texas formally requested that DHS and ICE look into it. The victim still hasn't been interviewed by either agency, and is still in detention.
As for COAST, Spencer acknowledges that strip club owners are just taking one step towards helping identify trafficking victims. Calling immigration on trafficking victims may not be perfect, but for now it's better than doing nothing at all.
"We're not law enforcement," Spencer said. "But if you saved one life, you might be the only chance that someone has. I would rather see someone go to ICE than be locked in a cage."
Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara
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