Three weeks after a 13-year-old girl was discovered dancing at Club Madonna in Miami Beach, Homeland Security agents on Monday sought the help of strip club owners and dancers to spot other possible human trafficking victims.
“We need you,” Carmen Pino, Homeland Security Investigations assistant special agent in charge, told the scores of strip club owners, managers and dancers who turned up for a meeting at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Airport & Cruise Port Hotel in Dania Beach. “We can’t do it alone and we hope we can walk away from this meeting with a partnership.”
The meeting was an effort by the federal government to reach out to members of an industry considered to be among the targets of criminal organizations that lure human trafficking victims.
The problem drew national media attention early this month when police arrested three people on charges of forcing a 13-year-old runaway into a life of prostitution and pole-dancing, which included stints at the well-known club on Miami Beach. A fourth person was arrested later and Miami Beach officials shut down the club.
Since the Club Madonna scandal, strip clubs have been under scrutiny, with critics questioning how the clubs verify whether dancers are of age.
At the meeting Monday, some club managers said they check ID documents to make sure dancers are not minors.
“We look at the documents,” said Enrique Arellano, a DJ at Solid Gold Fort Lauderdale. “We request at least two types of ID, like driver’s license or school papers, if they are in college or university.”
A 23-year-old woman who identified herself as Kendra said she was a dancer in a local strip club where managers checked the ages of entertainers. She said that club policy requires women under 21 to wear a wristband so that waiters and waitresses at the clubs do not serve them drinks.
“If you do drink, you immediately get fired,” said Kendra.
The event was organized by the group Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking, (COAST) in collaboration with Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We have been doing this across the United States for the last three years,” said COAST co-founder Angelina Spencer, a former strip club owner and dancer. “We have trained over 4,000 people in the adult entertainment industry about the indicators of human trafficking.”
One tell-tale sign, she said, might be a young woman who shows up looking for a job at a strip club accompanied by someone who does all the talking for her or who holds her documents.
In introducing the federal agents who spoke at the event, Spencer disclosed the story of Shelley, a single mother in her early 20s who was lured from a Florida strip club by a customer.
He ended up kidnapping, raping and beating her. She was held captive for months, working as a nude dancer and prostitute at private parties — until she finally worked up the courage to go to the police, Spencer said.
Referring to Spencer’s story, Pino — the HSI agent — urged club workers to collaborate with ICE in bringing down human trafficking.
“Help us rescue some of these victims,” Pino said.