Jackson County

State Massage Board inspectors have role in taking down illicit spas

Investigators look through J.J. Spa LLC in St. Martin on Nov. 20, 2015, after a press conference announcing state and federal human-trafficking charges and a civil charge of public nuisance were used to close the business. The Mississippi Board of Massage Therapy worked with investigators in this high-profile case that ended in a criminal conviction.
Investigators look through J.J. Spa LLC in St. Martin on Nov. 20, 2015, after a press conference announcing state and federal human-trafficking charges and a civil charge of public nuisance were used to close the business. The Mississippi Board of Massage Therapy worked with investigators in this high-profile case that ended in a criminal conviction. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

It doesn’t sound like a tough organization — the Mississippi Board of Massage Therapy.

The faces of the staff and inspectors on the website are cheerful enough, surrounded by a white stone background, like what you might find in a spa to give a sense of peace and calm.

They aren’t law officers, but they have been drawn into the very serious issue of massage spas being used for illicit purposes and in some cases, human trafficking.

Their inspectors are in a position to be the point people in uncovering operations, because they have the power under state law to make unannounced visits on massage spas. They arrive to see if the state-licensed massage therapists are following the rules and are current on their certifications. If they suspect something else is wrong, they can then report it to local or even state law enforcement.

Most of the board’s cases are simple license or certification issues. But at least five times a year, it has dealt with what board officials call advertising unprofessional or unethical services.

It’s not as cut and dried as it seems. But in a roundabout way, its agents do good beyond the task they’re charged with. If an establishment is advertising massages, but has no licensed therapist, it’s illegal. When the state determines it’s illegal, then cities and county law or code enforcement can move to shut it down.

It’s happening more and more, said Yvonne Laird, the executive director of the board.

JJ Spa in St. Martin was shut down by state and federal officials in November 2015, charging the owner with human trafficking. She later pled guilty to money laundering charges and was sentenced to 35 months in jail.

Coast massage spas

That’s what happened recently when Ocean Springs planning and building officials pulled the business-privilege license on the Oasis Spa on U.S. 90, near downtown.

That spa had been under question by the state for several years for advertising sensual massages with no state-licensed therapist in its employ. The state had already determined it was operating illegally, without a license for massage. When it changed owners and applied for a new-business license, the city was able to cite the Massage Therapy Board’s finding and deny the permit.

So the state agency doesn’t close businesses. It works strictly by licensing of massage therapists. But no business is allowed to advertise or conduct massages without a state-licensed therapist. If a therapist’s license is pulled, the business can’t legally function.

This process is the way Mississippi came to validate the massage profession. It established the policing board in 2000 with the Mississippi Professional Massage Therapy Act.

“It was a progressive thing for our state at the time,” Laird said, adding she treasures the partnership with law enforcement agencies that she hopes will flourish.

She said there are 2,500 licensed therapists in Mississippi. Some go inactive, so she estimates about 1,200 are practicing.

“Massage therapists in our state are treated like any other health-care professional,” she said. “We don’t register them, we license them. Their documentation is more stringent.”

And any time an establishment advertises massage via any medium — print, online or fliers — the advertising must include the license number of the therapist who will be performing the massages. Not the name, the license number. That’s key for anyone who wants to check out an establishment before paying for a massage.

Know what you are buying

Another clue to the legitimacy of an operation is that a massage therapist is required to work in an environment that offers hot and cold running water and other basics and has the state code of ethics posted in a conspicuous place, Laird said.

Licensed therapists must meet educational requirements, have graduated from a state-approved school, pass a criminal background check and state-law exam.

It costs roughly $400 for a trained person to be certified and licensed to practice in Mississippi.

If there are questions about a massage business, the state board comes into play in two ways — a direct complaint from residents or law enforcement and inspections. Both will open a case file.

Laird said they aren’t the point agency for cracking down on human trafficking. That lies in law enforcement. Human trafficking can happen in any profession, she said.

“But massage therapy is something (human traffickers) have found a niche in,” she said. “When suspected, if we pull their license, they usually shut down and leave the state.”

She said that is no solution, because the traffickers usually take the women with them when they move.

But the board took the initiative to hire additional inspectors and “is getting involved in what might have been happening in those facilities.”

“Many times we’ll get a call from law enforcement that says something doesn’t look right about a place,” Laird said. “We team up and go with them.”

The state has an assistant attorney general assigned to the board and its investigators. That person coordinates with local district attorneys.

“The unfortunate thing about the process is that it takes so much time,” she said. “And everyone has to do their part.”

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