With its valet parking, two ballrooms and swanky suites, which at times command $1,400 a night, downtown Omaha’s Magnolia Hotel doesn’t seem like a prime place for pimps and prostitutes.
But no hotel or motel is immune to sex trafficking, experts say. They say lodging in and around Omaha’s entertainment hub can be even more at-risk during high-profile events such as the coming College World Series.
So Thursday the Magnolia stepped up as the first participant in a pilot project that aims to train hospitality workers in spotting and responding to youngsters and women being forced into sex acts by false promises, physical threats or other coercion.
“It’s precautionary and preventative,” said Stephen Patrick O’Meara, a law enforcement official with the Coalition on Human Trafficking, which coordinated the training. “But it’s not at all what people might think — that it’s only in the lesser facilities where this occurs.”
The coalition — which includes the Victim Outreach and Prevention Office of the Archdiocese of Omaha; Project Harmony; Catholic Charities; the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office; Kiwanis; and area nuns — is partnering with the Metropolitan Hospitality Association in the initiative. The goal is to provide awareness and tips to staffs of Omaha-area hotels and motels.
Among about 20 hotels notified, about three have shown an interest so far, said the coalition’s Sister Celeste Wobeter. The coalition’s longer-term goal is to present the training to all hotels and motels within 50 miles of Omaha. And ultimately to reduce the exploitation.
Tim Darby, general manager of the Magnolia and president of the hospitality association, said he volunteered to set an example to his industry. He said a hotel’s job is to provide a safe and secure environment and said the training is an opportunity to raise awareness.
“If my team observes something, bring it forward,” he said. “If we can help even one person, that would be amazing, and just the right thing to do.”
About 45 Magnolia workers, during two shifts, heard the presentation about the prevalence of human trafficking and what they can do about it.
Coalition member Shane Fagan told the group that, nationwide, a small portion of human trafficking victims are slave laborers while the vast majority are sexually exploited.
About one-third of victims are minors, he said.
In the Omaha metro area, an estimated 100 victims have been rescued and helped since 2010, Fagan said.
“That may be the tip of the iceberg.”
Sex trafficking is a money-making enterprise, said Fagan, who described the case of a young female who brought in $1,000 a day for her pimp.
O’Meara, human trafficking coordinator with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and former assistant U.S. attorney in Nebraska and Iowa, cited a recent investigation in which a family-focused hotel in Des Moines — one with a water park for kids — was involved in sex trafficking.
He said the crime is disproportionately carried out in the hospitality industry. Although there’s a shortage of empirical evidence, O’Meara said, anecdotal evidence and a study point to a sex trafficking spike during high-profile events such as national sporting tournaments or huge construction projects.
Fagan described for the Magnolia staff signs to watch for: a vacant look in a woman’s eyes; an inappropriately small amount of luggage; a controlling male who handles multiple girls’ identifications or cellphones; an unusual collection of wigs or IDs inside a suite; prepaid debit cards; females routinely avoiding eye contact; females seen with a lot of different men or never seen alone; girls who aren’t sure what city they’re in; strong requests for housekeeping to stay away.
Fagan said hotel staff who suspect wrongdoing should follow their hotel’s procedures and contact proper authorities but not intervene directly, because that could encourage flight or danger.
Magnolia workers said they appreciated the information. Elizabeth Paiva, who works in banquets, grabbed Darby’s hand and thanked him for arranging the training.
Mari Nelson-McGruder, also in food and beverages, was eager to learn more about the Magnolia’s policies and what happens next in the awareness-building process.
“For us working in hotels, this is very important,” she said. “The places that seem the most unlikely may very well be the most vulnerable.”
Co-worker Jonathan Ekanem said he left more prepared.
“This showed me to pay attention more,” he said. “It could happen here or anywhere, right under your nose.”
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