Difference Maker

Kimberly Ritter stands up to child sex trafficking in US hotels

Kimberly Ritter discovered that some US hotels harbor a horrifying secret – child sex trafficking. Now she and her employer are urging the hospitality industry to confront the problem.

By , Staff writer

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    Kimberly Ritter of Nix Conference & Meeting Management will be honored by the FBI for her efforts to protect children from sex trafficking at hotels.
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The first time someone mentioned human trafficking to Kimberly Ritter, she had only a vague idea of what it was. "Isn't that something that happens in third-world countries?" she asked.

That was 2008. Today Ms. Ritter might be said to have two careers. On the one hand, she's still a meeting planner, a 20-year veteran of the travel and hospitality industry. But she now expends almost as much energy fighting child sex trafficking.

It all started with Ritter's largest client, the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. In her work as a senior account manager at Nix Conference & Meeting Management in St. Louis, Ritter books meeting venues for this group of Roman Catholic nuns. The sisters devote themselves to causes like opposition to the death penalty and the fight to stamp out disposable plastic drinking bottles. Ritter has come to greatly admire their stands, she says.

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But the sisters took her by surprise one day when they talked about an upcoming conference and said that they wanted to stay at a hotel that took a stand against child sex trafficking.

"I have learned so much from the sisters over the years," she says. So she began educating herself on child sex trafficking. What she learned came as a shock.

Ritter discovered that, according to UNICEF, about 1.2 million children are exploited each year in the global child sex trade. The crime falls under the larger heading of human trafficking, one of the fastest-growing illegal businesses on the planet, estimated by the United Nations to have an annual value of $32 billion.

Sex trafficking – which differs from prostitution – is part of this and occurs when a victim is tricked into prostitution by force, fraud, or coercion. But when a minor is commercially exploited, it's considered human trafficking even in cases where force, fraud, or coercion cannot be proved. [Editor's note: The original story did not clearly state the specifics of this crime with respect to minors.]  

But perhaps what was most horrifying to Ritter, as a longtime worker in the hospitality field, was to discover how often US hotels are the venues for such crimes.

"It happens everywhere," Ritter says, and "that includes five-star hotels."

What the Sisters of St. Joseph wanted Ritter to do was to find a hotel for their next conference that had signed on to the standards created by a group called ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) USA. The ECPAT standards ask hotels to take a stand on child sex trafficking by – among other actions – training their employees to look for signs of it and asking all their suppliers to do the same.

Spotting the telltale signs

At hotels, this crime often leaves telltale signs visible to employees. When a third party arranges for a room for a guest, or when a guest shows up without luggage and doesn't spend the night, or when a young girl is dressed inappropriately or seems disoriented or confused – any of these could be signs of child sex trafficking.

But because hotel employees are not trained to recognize the problem or encouraged to report suspicious activity, it may go overlooked.

That's where the training mandated by ECPAT could make a difference.

What Ritter discovered, however, when she began canvassing hotels, was that many were reluctant to take any kind of stand on child sex trafficking. They feared that signing an agreement such as the ECPAT standard was tantamount to acknowledging that such crimes might be taking place in their hotels. Given the extreme public revulsion to the topic, they simply wanted to keep a distance.

As a result, some employees remain remarkably ignorant. (When Ritter surveyed several hotels asking them for their policy on human trafficking, one hotel worker replied: "We maintain and point out the crosswalk in front.")

But finally, Ritter scored a big success. The Millennium Hotel in St. Louis agreed to sign the ECPAT pledge. It did so during a special ceremony in July 2011, while the Sisters of St. Joseph were holding their conference there.

Ritter was initially delighted. But the day after the signing she realized, "That's not enough." In fact, it was just the beginning.

Online photos yield important clues

Ritter's company, Nix, was founded in 1985 by Richard Nix Sr. But today its seven em-ployees are all women. Intrigued by Ritter's campaign, the entire group – led by principals Molly Hackett and Jane Quinn – decided to throw its weight into the fight.

Today Nix continues to work to inform hotel staffs about child sex trafficking and to urge them to sign the agreement. They have also developed standards that meeting planners can sign on to as well. (A letter that individual guests can present to hotels, urging them to sign the ECPAT standards, can be found at http://ecpatusa.org/take-action/promote-the-code/).

One effective gambit for Ritter has been to find images of children available for sex online. (She says that these images are only too easy to locate.) Often these girls are photographed (faces blanked out) in hotel rooms. Ritter studies the photos and can sometimes recognize the hotel, thanks to clues like wallpaper patterns or the view from the window. She then takes the photo to the hotel's managers.

The reaction, she says, is usually one of absolute horror.

Ritter has become an active member of the Healing Action Network (of which Ritter is now a vice president and on the board of directors), which works with young women who have been able to flee the sex trade. [Editor's note: this article originally misidentified this group as the Human Action Network.]

Getting to know these young women is an eye-opener, Ritter says. The notion that most children being trafficked are runaways or come from unstable homes is inaccurate. A fair number, she says, are suburban teens from middle-class families. They have been manipulated in some way by pimps, who are extremely savvy about using a mix of drugs, attention, praise, and threats to bend the girls to their will.

Facebook and the local mall are favorite recruiting grounds. Handsome teenage boys are sometimes hired to make the initial approach.

Once coerced into "the life," it can be hard for a girl to get out, Ritter says. Pimps can be violent and will fight to protect their "assets."

That is why an educated hotel staff is so important. Ritter tells a tale she heard from a young woman who has since freed herself from the trafficking business. She had been brought to a St. Louis hotel for yet another sexual encounter when she decided to break away.

She fled the hotel room, leaving her pimp and the client behind, and ran down the hotel hallway shouting for help. She encountered a maid who spoke no English; not understanding the situation, the maid helped to return the girl to the pimp who was chasing her.

'You've got to keep doing this'

That's exactly the kind of situation in which employee training could have been crucial, Ritter says. In fact, she says, when she told this young woman about the ECPAT agreement, her response was: "You've got to keep doing this. You're going to get such a blessing."

The blessing has come already, Ritter says.

"This has been life-changing for all of us," she says of herself and her colleagues at Nix. "It has created a whole new world for us."

It also has taken the work of the Sisters of St. Joseph to a whole new level.

"Kimberly realized that as a meeting planner she has a tremendous opportunity to influence hotels," says Sister Patty Johnson, the group's executive director. "She's reaching groups that we could not."

Public recognition is now following as well. In April Ritter will fly to Washington, D.C., to attend a national ceremony at which she will receive a community leadership award from FBI Director Robert Mueller to honor her work in the fight against child sex trafficking.

"Raising awareness goes a long way to preventing sex trafficking or any crime," states Dean C. Bryant, special agent in charge of the FBI St. Louis division, in the press release announcing the event. "By challenging their industry peers to raise awareness, Ms. Ritter and Nix are creating a force multiplier that could eventually have a nationwide impact."

• For more, visit http://ecpatusa.org.

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