The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday heard from critics of a "bodyworks" bill aimed at businesses that are fronts for human trafficking. Credit: Photo by Andrew Schotz

Montgomery County Council Member Craig Rice’s proposal to impose more control over businesses that are fronts for human trafficking ran into criticism this week.

At a hearing on the bill on Tuesday, practitioners from some health fields said the legislation needs work.

Practitioners and the chair of a state regulatory body spoke against the bill. They disagreed with attempts to group separate types of practices together. Opponents said new licensing requirements for massage therapists would increase their costs.

Rice’s bill is aimed at “bodyworks” establishments, loosely defined as businesses that offer acupressure, reflexology and other treatments involving client-practitioner contact.

The Polaris Project, a national nonprofit trying to end human trafficking, has found that “illicit massage businesses” are often a front for trafficking or prostitution.

Montgomery County has required licenses for bodyworks operators since 2015, but individual practitioners aren’t required to be licensed.

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The bill aims to tighten county laws by reclassifying massage clinics as bodyworks establishments. It would also require practitioners at all bodyworks establishments — from massage therapists to reflexologists — to be licensed as a massage therapist or registered massage practitioner by the state.

During the hearing, Amelia Mitchell, a licensed massage therapist representing the American Massage Therapy Association’s Maryland chapter, said the organization is “deeply concerned” that the bill would inadvertently hurt thousands of legal practitioners who are considered health care providers.

“We simply are not the problem,” said Mitchell, who owns Alchemy Healing Arts Center in Annapolis. “However, you seek to regulate us as the solution.”

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She said therapeutic massage can be as effective as opioids in managing chronic pain.

Reflexologists, whose practice involves applying pressure to feet and hands, have their own board of certification that they must maintain every two years, said Iris Aharonovich, who has a private practice in Rockville.

Clients are fully clothed, other than their bare feet. Reflexologists touch clients’ feet, hands and outer ear only, she said.

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“This bill is taking our legal right to practice …,” Aharonovich said. “We are not the target of this bill.”

Jaime Bernardo, a licensed massage therapist practicing in Montgomery County for years, said the bill could have an effect that’s opposite what’s intended. Instead of working to prevent illicit businesses from leasing space and promoting unregulated health techniques, it could entice traffickers to open more fronts claiming to be a legitimate bodywork establishment.

“This bill only serves to further blur the lines between professional massage therapy practices and illicit businesses that abuse spa permits or don’t bother to apply for licenses,” he said.

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Paula Jilanis, the chair of the State Board of Massage Therapy Examiners, said her board questions why the bill addresses “sexual activity,” which is more appropriately enforced through a criminal statute.

“If other health care professions had this [definition] in their laws and ordinance,” she said, “the board would support it.”

Still, the state board commends Montgomery County for trying to crack down on unlicensed massage therapists, Jilanis said.

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There is no evidence that licensing bodyworks employees will make a difference, said Caroline Ackerman, a staff attorney for the Amara Legal Center, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that provides free legal services to survivors of sex trafficking and to sex workers.

She said unlimited right of entry by law enforcement officers, as proposed in the bill, is not necessary when they already can enter with a warrant based on probable cause.

Also, survivors of trafficking don’t necessarily identify themselves as such and could be arrested and prosecuted, Ackerman said.

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Rice said some of the suggestions were valid criticisms and will lead to amendments as the bill progresses. It is scheduled to come before two council committees on Feb. 25.

“… We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is not solely about human trafficking,” Rice said. “This is about public safety and making sure that the people who are providing services to the people in Montgomery County are licensed and regulated.”