Human and sex trafficking operates in the shadows.

But make no mistake, this is happening in Bucks County.

Look no further, officials say, than mall massage parlors with locked doors in the middle of the day, late hours at night, cash exchanges in therapy rooms and customers going and come through backdoors, to name a few ominous signs that raise red flags.

Chelsey Jackman, a former prosecutor who now works as an assistant attorney in the Bucks County Legal Department, said she is often asked if human trafficking is really happening in Bucks County.

“It is. This modern day slavery is able to thrive in these massage parlors under the guise of a legitimate business, but that is where forced sex work and unfair labor practices occur,” he said. she said Wednesday at the county commissioners meeting.

In response, the commissioners passed an ordinance on Wednesday to regulate massage businesses across the county, becoming the first county government in Pennsylvania to have such a law on the books. They said the law aims to reduce and eliminate illicit massage establishments that promote prostitution and sex trafficking.

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A handful of municipalities in Bucks County have their own ordinances, including Falls and Middletown. Bucks commissioner chairman Bob Harvie, a former falls supervisor, said the city sees the benefits of having bylaws in its efforts to stop illicit massage parlors from setting up shop.

“Governments have an obligation to serve and protect their residents,” Harvie said in an email after the meeting. “That’s true at all levels of government. Exercising tighter controls over certain businesses helps protect those businesses’ workers, potential customers, and the community as a whole.”

Jackman, who previously prosecuted human trafficking cases in Bucks, said officials found that “women with some kind of addiction” sometimes turned to prostitution to support themselves and then went under. the control of prostitution networks.

When this happens with a child under the age of 18, it is not considered prostitution but human trafficking.

She also said that often people from foreign countries are brought to the United States, but their passports are taken away and they are trafficked, often through networks that she says are based in New York. “These are very difficult cases,” she said.

Case - Chelsey Jackman, a former prosecutor who now works as an assistant attorney in the Bucks County Legal Department, said human trafficking is happening here.

By preventing illicit massage businesses from opening, municipalities won’t have to use police resources to police them, Jackman said.

“When we work together, this (human trafficking) cannot thrive on our watch. It will free up the police.”

She said a massage establishment that has late hours or whose doors are locked during the day could be suspected of illicit trade. “There’s no reason for the doors to be locked,” she said.

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The county ordinance, passed during Human Trafficking Awareness Month, has several measures related to licensing and how massage businesses must maintain cleanliness and good lighting. It also prohibits anyone under the age of 16 from being in a massage parlour, except with a parent or guardian.

It also fixes the opening hours of massage parlors between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.; requires patrons to enter through a front door unless an exception is obtained from the Bucks Health Department; indicates that an owner or manager must be on duty during business hours; and requires the facility to keep a list of clients and services provided for at least 90 days after the date of service. Fees for services should be clearly stated in sales brochures and should not change.

The ordinance would make it illegal for an owner or employee “to expose their sexual or genital area to a customer or other person” and would make it illegal for them “to place their hands on, touch, fondle or have any other physical contact with another person’s sexual or genital area” or offering to do so.

Violators of the ordinance could face fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 and those guilty of violating the “unlawful driving” section could face up to 10 days in jail.

Middletown Supervisory Chairman Michael Ksiazek said the ordinance his township passed last fall followed a police investigation he says led to the closure of two illicit massage parlors in the township. .

He said township officials realized these companies were targeting municipalities where there were no laws to regulate massage services.

Marc Levitan, one of the owners of Essential salons in Doylestown and Warrington, said he is giving the new order a “stamp of approval”.

Levitan called the new regulations “common sense industry practices that massage businesses should adopt… No legitimate massage business needs to be open at 3 a.m. or accept cash payments in the therapy room.

He also noted that the new regulations do not come into force for 180 days to give current operators time to make changes.

A recent to study by Heyrick Research in California showed that there are ways to help the public know if a massage business is legitimate, said Julie Dugery, co-chair of the Bucks Coalition Against Trafficking and staff member of the Network of Victims Assistance ( NOVA), a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault and other crimes.

Massage establishments that may be illicit are often open all night or advertise on adult websites, the study found.

Bucks County Consumer Protection/Weights and Measures Department Director Michael Bannon said anyone who suspects a massage business is operating illegally can contact their department anonymously.

The department’s phone number is 215-348-6060 or email [email protected]

Joining Bucks County Commissioners (back row, left to right) Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Bob Harvie and Gene DiGirolamo are members of organizations marking Human Trafficking Awareness Month at the County Administration Building in Doylestown Wednesday.  They include (front row, from left) Cindy LaBar, Bucks County Drug & Alcohol Commission;  Jen Locker, A Woman's Place;  Elyse Hoekstra, NOVA: Stephanie Shantz Stiver, NOVA;  Julie Dugery, NOVA, co-chair of the Bucks Coalition Against Trafficking;  Penny Ettinger, Nova Scotia;  Jenna Spadaro, Nova Scotia;  Brooke Engelbart, Worthwhile Wear;  Kelly Teel, Children and Youth of Bucks County;  and Chelsea Jackman, Bucks County Legal Department.

To contact Peg Quann, email [email protected]