ST. LOUIS – At 18 years old, Katie Rhoades found herself homeless. On top of that, she was dealing with alcohol addiction and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder from rape and sexual trauma. A friend suggested exotic dancing as a way to make some “quick cash” with the hope it would get her on her feet.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, she fell deeper into a hole, surrounded by a life of sex for money, drugs and alcohol. By the time she was 19, she was picked up by a pimp and taken from her home in Oregon to California, where she was groomed as a prostitute.
Now 30 and studying for a master’s degree at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, Rhoades says she knows all too well the realities of the sex-trafficking industry, which she escaped in 2002. The U.S. Department of Justice notes that approximately 300,000 young girls in the United States are at risk for commercial exploitation each year. The average age of entry for child-trafficking victims is 12 years old.
That’s why Rhoades joined nearly 900 Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Louis during the July 9-13 meeting of the community’s U.S. federation at the Millennium Hotel to witness as the hotel publicly called for greater awareness of the child sex-trafficking industry.
After months of planning for the federation meeting, the Sisters of St. Joseph and others worked with the Millennium Hotel to sign a “Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism.” The code, which was signed at a public ceremony at the hotel July 12, was developed by an international nongovernment organization called End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking Children for Sexual Purposes, or ECPAT.
The six-point code of conduct has been implemented by more than 240 tour operators, hotels, travel agents and others worldwide. Known as “The Code,” it calls participating companies to commit to establish an ethics policy regarding commercial exploitation of children, training personnel, introducing clauses in contracts with suppliers stating repudiation of commercial sexploitation and providing information to travelers and local “key persons” at destinations. The code has received the support of many, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
ECPAT “seeks to encourage the world community to ensure that children everywhere enjoy their fundamental rights, free and secure from all forms of sexual exploitation,” said Sister Kathy McCluskey, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph. By signing the code, she said, the hotel “declares itself as a place where the trafficking of persons is not tolerated.” Her statement was met with an overwhelming round of applause by those who attended the signing.
Millennium Hotel general manager Dominic Smart, who signed the document, said the move was a “proactive step” in drawing greater awareness and putting a stop to human sex trafficking. He noted that the St. Louis hotel is serving as a sort of “pilot effort,” with the hope that the hotel chain, which includes 100 properties worldwide and 14 in North America, will implement the code in other cities.
Smart added that several dozen managers in St. Louis already have attended awareness training, which he said included a list of signs to look for that someone visiting the hotel may be a victim of sex trafficking.
Partnering with the Sisters of St. Joseph and the hotel were Nix Conference and Meeting Management, which assisted in planning the sisters’ federation meeting; and the Covering House, a new, St. Louis-based nonprofit organization that seeks to assist girls under 18 who are victims of sex trafficking.
During the federation meeting, more than $7,000 was raised for the organization.
Dee Dee Lhamon, founder and president, said her organization is raising money to open two homes for girls in the St. Louis area. One would serve as a temporary “safe house,” with a second serving as a more long-term facility to help young women acclimate themselves back into society. Services will include education, development of life skills, counseling and more.