State closes ‘bodyworks loophole,’ adding oversight

  • Pine Spa in Northampton is pictured in December 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — In February 2017, four people accused of running sex-trafficking rings in the region, with associations to massage parlors in Northampton and Hadley, were indicted by a grand jury.

Those indicted, including two Sunderland residents, are among more than 40 individuals who, over the past several years, have been charged in connection with human trafficking by the Attorney General Maura Healey’s Human Trafficking Division.

To combat these crimes, the Massachusetts Senate on July 19 unanimously passed legislation that will close what is called the “bodyworks loophole” in state law.

Under the legislation, brought forward by Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, with support from Healey and the Baker-Polito administration’s Division of Professional Licensure, these types of businesses, which have often acted as fronts for human trafficking, will no longer be exempt from state oversight.

This would include the two businesses — Pine Spa in Northampton and Hadley Massage Therapy in Hadley — where some of those accused of running sex-trafficking rings in the region worked.

In a statement, Healey praised the legislation.

“In case after case that we prosecute, human traffickers exploit the bodyworks loophole to oppress victims, escape oversight and avoid law enforcement,” Healey said.

Healey added that the legislation, which still must be approved by the House, will allow the state to shut down fronts and illicit actors, while legitimizing law-abiding healing practitioners.

Since 2006, state licensing requirements have applied only to massage therapists, with these practitioners getting their licenses through the Division of Professional Licensure and the Board of Registration of Massage Therapy.

Those businesses describing themselves as performing bodyworks, defined in the Senate legislation as the practice of a person who uses touch, words or directed movement to deepen awareness of patterns of movement in the body, have not had to get state licenses. Among these professions are Reflexology, Ayurvedic Therapies, Acupressure, Qi Gong, Shiatsu, Body-Mind Centering and Reiki.

According to the current state law, “these exempt practitioners may use the terms ‘bodywork,’ ‘bodyworker’ and ‘bodywork therapist’ in their promotional literature. They may not claim to practice massage or massage therapy. Individuals desiring to practice these professions should contact their local community.”

Modeled after the current licensing structure for massage therapy, the bill sets out a license and application process, sets standards for advertising and authorizes the Division of Professional Licensure to inspect and investigate complaints. Local police departments will also have the authority to inspect bodywork facilities.

For communities that have dealt with these issues and been involved in the investigations coordinated by the attorney general, the Senate legislation is appreciated.

“Legislation that provides further oversight of these types of businesses will be warmly welcomed,” Hadley Police Lt. Mitchell Kuc said.

Besides the 2016 allegations of human trafficking at Hadley Massage Therapy, the business was also the target of a raid in the fall of 2009 in an operation in which two women were arrested on charges of offering sexual conduct for a fee. At that time, a second business, called Jane’s Spa, was also raised.

Currently, neither business exists in Hadley, Kuc said.

Kuc said past practice for the department has been if a complaint is filed, officers will assist in monitoring that business. The Senate legislation would give departments a bigger role, such as they have with examining IDs and doing other forms of enforcement at package stores and bars.

Prior to the indictments last year, Northampton Police looked into Pine Spa, as well as Revival Body Work & Massage, Relax and Wellness Asian Massage and Therapeutic Body Works, beginning in April 2014, after allegations of offering sexual contact for money came to light. No arrests were made at that time.

This Senate legislation also restructures the Board of Registration of Massage Therapy to include two bodyworks practitioners and a law enforcement representative who specializes in human trafficking and requires the board to adopt regulations for the safe practice of bodyworks.

Practitioners and the public are expected to be invited to participate in public hearings that will give the board information on establishing training and certification requirements.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.