The hospitality industry is in a key position to protect children from being trapped in prostitution rings. Some companies have joined a global training initiative to combat such exploitation but others fear connecting their organizations with such an ugly subject.
A major U.S.-based hotel chain has signed an agreement that will result in, among other things, special training for its employees to help detect and report child prostitution at its hotel properties.
The company, Parsippany, N.J.-based Wyndham Worldwide, joins two other U.S.-based hotel operators -- Carlson Cos. and Hilton International -- in signing a Code for the Protection of Children in Travel and Tourism, a global initiative designed to combat child-sex trafficking.
The agreement comes in the wake of bad publicity for the company.
Thirty-eight people were recently indicted in Southern California after an 18-month law-enforcement investigation into child-sex trafficking taking place in local hotels. Among those arrested were the owners of a Wyndham Worldwide-franchised hotel in Oceanside, Calif., according to CNN.com.
Far more U.S. companies need to join Wyndham in signing the Code, says Carol Smolenski, executive director of the U.S. branch of Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking, a Thailand-based organization.
"We believe there are hundreds of thousands of kids being exploited in the United States," she says. The staff at hotels and motels often has firsthand knowledge of such activities but may be reluctant or unsure of what to do about it, she adds.
Last year, Minneapolis-based Carlson trained 447 corporate U.S. employees in a program called "Living Responsible Business," a three-and-a-half hour long program that included a module on creating awareness of child-sex trafficking and exploitation.
"We see [the training] as an opportunity to be open and proactive about this crime so all our stakeholders -- employees, guests or suppliers -- can feel safe while working or doing business with us," said Beathe-Jeanette Lunde, Carlson's executive vice president for people development, in a statement from the company.
There are no reliable statistics on child-sexual exploitation in the United States.
A study conducted 10 years ago by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work estimated that anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children in this country were "at risk" of exploitation, while ECPAT-US believes "hundreds of thousands" of U.S. children (those 18 and under) may be exploited each year.
Hotel rooms are typical sites for such crimes, says Smolenski. The young victims are often found hanging out in shopping centers or outside group homes, bus stations or other places where large numbers of runaway youths are likely to congregate, she says.
The children -- often already having been victims of molestation or abuse -- are lured into the business by individuals with the following pitch: You've already been raped, you might as well let us teach you how to get paid for it, Smolenski says.
Training employees to recognize and report suspected cases of child prostitution doesn't mean they'll automatically alert the police when, say, they spot an older man with a much-younger companion, says Smolenski.
"We would never encourage hotels to encourage employees to call the cops whenever they have suspicions about a customer," she says.
Instead, employees should be trained to be on the lookout for a variety of suspicious signs -- people coming in and out of a hotel room at all hours of the night, a guest who arrives with a different young companion night after night -- and determine which incidents are suspicious enough to be reported to their manager and which warrant a call to the police, she says.
Although Smolenski says employees at hotel chains that have signed the Code tell their managers they're happy the company did so, many hotel chains are wary of signing it, says Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association in Washington.
"We're all against human trafficking," he says. "But we're concerned about the reporting and documentation EPCAT is requiring of hotels that sign the Code. That's where the hang-up is."
Many hotels already cooperate with law enforcement in stopping child-sex trafficking, says McInerney.
For her part, Smolenski says she's skeptical that concerns about reporting requirements are an impediment to hotels signing the Code.
"If it's not one thing, then it's something else," she says. "I think many hotel chains are concerned about drawing unwanted attention to this ugly subject if they sign the Code."