FARGO — All employees of Minnesota hotels and motels must undergo training on how to recognize potential victims of sex trafficking and activities commonly associated with the crime.
The training mandate only recently went into effect, so it's too soon to tell how successful it will be. But those behind the push say close to 800 hotels in Minnesota have accessed training materials through the state Department of Health website.
No such mandate exists for North Dakota's hotels and motels. However, North Dakota officials are keeping an eye on what's happening in Minnesota.
"We're taking note that Minnesota is doing that and waiting to see how that plays out and being able to adopt those really good pieces," said Emily Schwartz, director of the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force.
And while discussions are still in early stages, Schwartz said North Dakota may follow suit as the task force is "keenly interested in what Minnesota is doing."
In the meantime, North Dakota officials are working to teach hospitality workers the telltales of sex trafficking.
Schwartz said there's a "big push underway with law enforcement making contact with individuals in the service industry." Since forming in 2015, the task force has helped train employees at several dozen hotels and motels, she said.
Rachael Johanns, front office manager at the Radisson in downtown Fargo, said staff at the hotel are looking into sex trafficking prevention training in the new year. She said at the last hotel she worked for, staff went through training and "we had instances where we needed it for front desk staff."
"It's definitely a good thing to get them information on what to do if it occurs," Johanns said, adding that she supports the training being a requirement.
Traffickers often take advantage of the anonymity and privacy that hotels offer, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In the past decade, there were more than 500 trafficking victims in Minnesota and North Dakota combined, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. As of July 1, there were 35 reported cases of sex trafficking in Minnesota this year and six in North Dakota.
Detective Nick Kjonaas with the Fargo Police Department has been visiting hotels since August handing out business cards and posters that list the signs of trafficking, with contact information for local law enforcement.
"There's not a type of hotel where sex trafficking occurs. We think all can potentially be a site for this," he said. "We hope if they see something they call us."
Kjonaas, who's on the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force, said the advantage Minnesota has with mandated training is being able to force a conversation with a hotel owner who doesn't want to come to the table. But so far, he said most employees he's encountered in North Dakota are "ultimately happy we're in there talking about our goals and asking for ways we can work together to reduce or eliminate sex trafficking."
Cass County Sheriff-elect Jesse Jahner said deputies have been looking for signs of human and sex trafficking during traffic stops. "Because of where we live and the two interstates going through here, there is potential for human trafficking to take place," Jahner said.
One of the metro area's higher profile sex trafficking cases in recent years came in 2014 when two people were arrested on suspicion of prostituting a 13-year-old girl at Moorhead's Super 8 motel. The girl was later reunited with her family.
When contacted by The Forum this week, an employee at the Super 8 was unaware of Minnesota's training requirements. A message left for the manager was not returned.
Hotels and motels were required to meet the first training deadline by Nov. 1. Without the training, a hotel or motel could lose its license.
Beatriz Menanteau, supervisor of the Minnesota Health Department's Violence Prevention Programs Unit, said the department doesn't know what hotels and motels have completed the training. The department knows the number of businesses that have downloaded the training program, but whether all employees have completed the training won't be known until regular state inspections.
'The business of helping'
To encourage compliance with Minnesota's mandate, Menanteau said, the training is free and easily accessible online. She added that employees "understand trafficking hurts their business and they're in the business of helping."
"Whenever you want someone to do something, it's more effective if you can give them the tools to do it," she said. "Minnesota has taken a very progressive and active role in anti-trafficking work."
Sue Lofgren, manager of the Star Lite Motel in Dilworth, Minn., said she's received the required training, which she described as "very informational," but mostly common sense. She's the only employee of the 12-room motel, which has posters on preventing sex trafficking in the laundry room and displayed at the front desk.
Lofgren said her motel doesn't see any suspicious activity, but believes the training is important and agrees with North Dakota leaning toward a similar mandate.
"There's too much of it," she said of sex trafficking. "Way too much of it."
Signs of sex trafficking
- Customers lacking identification
- Cash only or cash card transactions
- Several women with one person in charge
- Room traffic and length of time visiting rooms
- Someone helping check in but not staying in the room or waiting in the parking lot
- Person checking in appears to be controlled or guarded by one person
Source: North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force