Groundbreaking lawsuits filed on behalf of sex-trafficking victims in Texas say hotels and truck stops didn’t do enough to prevent the crimes from happening on their property.
Two of those victims, Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 3, say they were shuttled from hotels to truck stops in the Houston area by their traffickers for almost two years.
“I would sit there and, like, hear stuff, like families, see families right across the hall,” Jane Doe 3 said.
“That's supposed to be a safe place where you can have your family there, and in the next room there's a young girl just being taken advantage of by 10, 15, 20 men in one night,” Jane Doe 1 said.
Just months before, they were typical teenagers in high school going to prom and playing sports.
“I was in class and I met a guy I was interested in, and he invited me to a party and he introduced me to methamphetamine,” said Jane Doe 3, who was a senior in high school when her ordeal began.
“My trafficker took me to a truck stop and told me to get out of the car where he had already dressed me in very revealing clothing and told me to go knock on the doors of the trucks and ask them if they needed anything,” said Jane Doe 1. “He was like, ‘They'll know what you're talking about.’"
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The girls said it was as if they were invisible.
“Like, you pass valet, you pass the concierge desk, you pass maids in the hallway, and nobody says anything,” Jane Doe 1 said. “It leaves you to wonder, like, do they care?”
Jane Doe 1 says hotels aren’t doing enough.
“When you can have a conversation with a 16-year old who is clearly dressed inappropriately and watch all of these people come in and out of her room and still say nothing. Something's not right,” she said.
“Some of the facts of our cases are going to show that not only did some of these hotel facilities or truck stops turn a blind eye, but they actually facilitated the trafficking of these individuals,” attorney Annie McAdams said.
The law in Texas says companies, their executives and shareholders can be held civilly liable for human trafficking if they profit from it intentionally or knowingly.
“We're here to disrupt the status quo of the industry,” McAdams said.
“It's not even just the smaller hotels,” Jane Doe 1 said. “It's the big hotels that you look at and you're like, ‘Oh, it'd be nice to spend a night there,’ until you've been there,” Jane Doe 1 said.
Some of the hotels named in lawsuits include Hyatt, Wyndham and Rockville, Maryland-headquartered Choice Hotels. Truck stops include Love’s and TravelCenters of America.
The lawsuits claim those corporations "benefited" from human trafficking of minors and "failed to take reasonable steps to protect" them.
“The question then becomes, ‘What are you doing to stop human trafficking from occurring on your premise?’" McAdams said.
Anti-trafficking advocacy organization Polaris Project recorded more than 3,300 cases of trafficking in hotels over the past 10 years, which they say doesn’t represent the full scope of the problem.
“The traffickers are counting on the fact that no one’s looking for them,” Polaris CEO Bradley Miles said. “The traffickers are counting on the fact that they're going to get away with this and fly below the radar because corporations aren't trained or community members aren't aware or people turn a blind eye.”
The National Human Trafficking Hotline says most of the calls about sex trafficking involve hotels.
News4 reached out to a number of the businesses named in the lawsuits, but none would comment on pending litigation. According to their websites, they all have human trafficking prevention policies in place, including employee training and partnerships with some of the best-known organizations working to end human trafficking.
“They can put something in an employee policy manual and say, ‘Hey, you got to sign this before you can go get behind the register,’ but actually telling and making sure their employees know what to do, know how to identify who a victim of human trafficking is, that can actually make a difference,” attorney David Harris said.
Polaris is one of several organizations partnering with hotels to help train staff on how to spot victims of trafficking and how to report it — mostly through online training courses.
Miles said he believes some hotels make the training mandatory while others strongly encourage it.
“I don't know if someone would be penalized if they don't take it,” he said.
The lawsuits filed on behalf of the Jane Does aim to change that.
Whether these lawsuits will make a difference is yet to be seen, but the attorneys are confident going after businesses civilly will force change in the entire travel industry.
“I just want them to actually do something that is going to change this, that nobody else should have to go through this,” Jane Doe 1 said. “Like, it's something that stays with you forever.”
The American Hotel and Lodging Association did not respond to request for comment.
Statement from Hyatt:
Hyatt does not comment on pending litigation, and therefore will not comment on details of this particular case.
That said, consistent with our commitment to responsible business practices and support for the communities we call home, Hyatt has long taken an aggressive stance on identifying and working to prevent human trafficking, including sex and labor trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, within our sphere of influence. We recognize the potential of human trafficking to intersect with the hospitality industry and have taken industry-leading steps that underscore our commitment to this issue. Those include:
- A global brand standard that mandates human trafficking training at all Hyatt hotels worldwide, including franchise locations. Hyatt partnered with Polaris, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to ending human trafficking, to launch a training program in 2012 that teaches our colleagues to understand the issue, helps them to identify indications of a potential trafficking situation and it guides them through the process for reporting it. In 2017, more than 55,000 colleagues were required to take this training.
- An enhanced version of the training for global security teams to equip them to work with potential victims and authorities when a situation is reported.
- Specialized awareness training programs for hotel staff prior to major events with heightened risk, which includes awareness steps we took this year ahead of Minneapolis’ major sporting event in February.
- Signed the End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) Code of Conduct in 2015, which is specifically focused on improving awareness and providing tools and support to the tourism industry to protect children from sexual exploitation.
- Support for vulnerable youth and human trafficking survivors through grants and on-the-job training for programs such as Associação Projeto Roda Viva, AlfaSol, and Youth Career Initiative
- Pursuing actions to block onsite internet access to several websites commonly used for human trafficking at U.S. hotels.
Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Meredith Royster, and edited by Perkins Broussard.