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Woman fights child sex trafficking one hotel at a time

Mary Schmich

April 7, 2013

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Before Kimberly Ritter booked the Sisters of St. Joseph into a local hotel last week, she had a question for the hotel management that had nothing to do with room rates or duvets:

Did the hotel take a strong stand against the sexual trafficking of children?

There was a time when it wouldn't have occurred to Ritter to ask. A professional meeting manager, she'd been in hundreds of hotels without ever thinking that there might be girls there forced into sex with strangers by some pimp.

Then one day five years ago the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph requested her help in organizing a conference. The Catholic sisters insisted on a hotel that had pledged not to tolerate child sex trafficking.

Unsure what such trafficking involved, Ritter looked it up on the Internet.

What she found made her sick.

There were reports of girls served up as sexual commodities. Websites that sold their services. Photos she could hardly believe. Acronyms for sex acts that specific girls would or wouldn't provide. Customers who called themselves "hobbyists."

And accommodating hotels.

"But what could I do about it?" Ritter said on Thursday, sitting in the Marriott O'Hare while down the hall 350 Sisters of St. Joseph were electing new officers. "I was just a meeting planner."

Ritter, who lives in St. Louis, has done so much by now that she was honored last week by the FBI in Washington for her crusade, work that she never forgets was inspired by the sisters.

"The sisters have taught me that my goal should be to heal God's universe," she said.

She was holding her smartphone. She tapped it. Up popped a photo of a girl stretched provocatively on a bed, featured on a popular online classified ads site that peddles women.

Some women on the site are really only girls, and those girls are apt to be hostages, even though they may think they love their pimps and may feign pleasure for the men who buy them.

"These girls may appear to enjoy it," Ritter said, "but that's because if they don't bring home $1,000 that night, their toes are going to be broken."

Ritter discovered that she had unusual crime-fighting skills. She could look at an online photo of a girl on a hotel bed or in front of a bathroom mirror and deduce where the room might be.

She knew which hotel chains used squares on the bedspread and which had leather headboards. Sometimes she could identify scenery out the window.

She has used her knowledge to tell hotel executives around the country that their rooms may be party to child abuse, then to press them to sign a child protection code of conduct. Many have. Some resist.

"General managers," she said, "would say, 'It's not happening at my property. We're four-star.'"

Four star or no star, she tells them, it happens. Airport hotels are uniquely vulnerable.

"Johns will book a six-hour layover, drive to the hotel, get served and go back to the airport," she said.

Ritter and the sisters have joined other groups in pressing hotels to train their staffs.

Housekeepers, desk clerks and security guards learn potential signs of sex exploitation: A bar code tattooed on a girl's neck. A "Daddy" tattoo. Repeated calls from the room for extra towels. Alcohol and teddy bears. Alcohol and ice cream. A coil of rope. Blood on the bed.

Even for hotels willing to help, however, it can be tricky.

"It's a very fine line," said Dieter Heigl, the general manager at the Marriott O'Hare, where staff are told to be on the lookout. "We're in the hospitality industry and you can't go around accusing people."

The first step toward solving a problem is making people aware there is one. The Sisters of St. Joseph educated Ritter and she, in turn, educates hotel employees.

"It's women helping women," she said.

Ritter and the sisters extend that attitude beyond their work against sex exploitation, knowing that cultivating respect for women is a cause with many interlocking pieces.

Last week, Ritter accompanied the sisters as they did something that no conventioneers had ever done at the Marriott O'Hare. They asked to visit the housekeeping staff.

The women who change the sheets and empty the trash gathered around, and the sisters said, "Thank you."

mschmich@tribune.com