On the agenda for Wednesday’s Board of Appeals public hearing is item 16-167, an appeal from Paradise Health Center at 242 Balboa.
On May 10, 2016 at around 9pm, members of the Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking and the SFPD paid a visit to the Paradise for a surprise inspection.
What they found was one of the female practitioners, “CoCo”, completely nude and engaged in a lewd act with a male client, also nude. According to the report, “the practitioner was straddling her customer and it clearly appeared they were engaged in a sex act”.
San Francisco Health Code states that massage practitioners have to be fully clothed, and cannot engage in lewd conduct.
The Paradise Health Center was fined $1,000 for the incident and in November 2016, was forced to close for 60 days when their massage establishment permit was suspended. The business filed an appeal to the decision which will be heard at Wednesday’s Board of Appeals meeting.
The basis of the appeal from Paradise Health Center is that the owner of the center did not know that the practitioner was engaging in lewd conduct. The appeal claims that because the owner did not have knowledge of the employee’s prohibited conduct, the suspension should not have been issued.
The appeal further claims that the massage therapist that was found to be in violation of the health code was “a CATMC certified massage therapist with an unblemished record”, and that there were no issues with the employee during her 4 months on the job.
The Paradise Health Center’s attorney also claims that the business had never been cited for any violations until that point since it opened in 2012, and no employee had ever been cited for prostitution.
However, included in the appeal is a report from December 2012 in which an employee was warned for a first offense of “improper attire by massage practitioner”. Also included is another report from February 2014 in which the business was cited again for the same violation.
The police report from the May 10, 2016 incident states that CoCo claimed the client was a “friend”, and that the client started kissing her and taking off her clothes, which she allowed because he was a “friend”. CoCo claimed that kissing was all they did, and that she was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. CoCo had given the client her number after a previous visit, and had his number saved in her phone but with no name (she recognizes it is him from the 415 area code).
Police interviewed other employees while at the Paradise Health Center. One massage practitioner said she is paid $20 per customer and had been working there for 2 years. Another employee, a janitor, said she had just been hired and works from 10am until 9:30pm, earning $100 a day (that’s $8.69 per hour).
Fronts for Human Trafficking
This type of behavior is not unusual in our city’s massage parlors. Officer Rodney Chan, who authored the police report for the incident, describes in detail why this can be an indicator of a much more sinister situation:
- Based on my training and experience, illicit massage businesses such as Paradise Spa, are fronts for criminal activity and human trafficking. They are venues guised as legitimate massage parlors in which women are forced, coerced, and defrauded into performing countless sex acts with strangers on a daily basis. Often times these women fail to self-identify themselves as victims of sexual and physical violence by perpetrators who exploit their inability to engage the criminal justice system. These women are in constant fear of retaliation from their controllers, and rarely will they disclose their abuse to law enforcement.
In a 2007 article about the task force’s shutdown of 18 massage parlors, the Chronicle stated that San Francisco is home to “more than 100 erotic massage parlors listed online and in Asian-language newspapers.”
The city began cracking down on massage parlors when Mayor Gavin Newsom was in office. He increased the frequency of massage parlor inspections by the task force, and the Board of Supervisors passed a law requiring public hearings of all proposed massage parlors.
The Richmond District is no stranger to these extra-curricular massage businesses. Its quiet streets and storefronts tucked in residential areas can be ideal hiding places for illicit businesses.
In 2013, inspections closed down at least two massage businesses in the Richmond District due to allegations of illegal activities and unsanitary conditions. And in 2014, an outer Balboa massage business was closed down for illegal activity.
“Each and every massage parlor was cited for at least one violation – and many of them showed clear evidence of human trafficking,” the Chronicle story reported, in reference to inspections across various neighborhoods.
Neighbors Weigh In
Included in the appeal are letters from neighbors to the Paradise Health Center, opposing the reinstatement of the massage business’ permit.
One letter is from the Julie Harris, the owner of Pediatric Occupational Therapy Clinic across the street, whose clients include children age 3 to 12 years old.
“Though they are quite discrete, it has been obvious that it is not a typical massage therapy business…We all have public health concerns, as well as legal and ethical concerns, as all of these children are exposed to the happenings surrounding this business. These happenings include the providers that come across the street to get food at Uncle Boy’s, as well as the customers sitting in their cars and waiting to go ring the bell to the door that will only open to them,” Harris wrote.
Peter’s Place Nursery School is also directly across the street. Several members of the school’s community wrote letters to the Department of Public Health, requesting the permanent revocation of the Paradise Health Center’s permit.
“I am appalled that illegal activity of a lewd nature has occurred within a stone’s throw of our children’s school,” wrote Kristen Villhauer, a parent and Board Member at the school. “We cannot trust that the Paradise Health Center will change its approach to business and all of a sudden become an upstanding neighborhood business.”
“The windows are heavily tinted so you can’t see in and therefore you question what is happening inside. When the business first opened, one of our teachers tried to get a massage and was immediately turned away for no reason…We are concerned for the safety of our children and families as illegal businesses can bring unsavory characters and trouble to the neighborhood,” wrote Christina Antipa, the Business Manager at the school.
Marcelia Nava, an employee of a neighboring business to the Paradise Health Center who has worked on the block since before the massage business opened, said the comings and goings at the business concern her.
“My other concern is the safety of the women who work there…I have only seen one woman walk in or out, only one time. They keep the door locked, do not answer to women and seem to service men in sweat pants very often. With the increase of women and children as victims of sex trafficking, I am not comfortable with the Paradise Health Center continuing operations,” Nava wrote.
One letter writer enclosed a snapshot of the Paradise Health Center’s website, which advertises “Beautiful Sexy Young Charming Asian Girl Staff Here to Please You” and “New Young Staffs”.
Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking
In March 2013, Mayor Ed Lee launched the Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking to review current efforts to improve the City’s response to human trafficking and identify gaps in services for survivors. The task force sits under the Department on the Status of Women.
The Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking takes a comprehensive, victim-centered approach and includes partners from law enforcement, social services agencies, and community based organizations.
To find out more, visit the Task Force’s website. If you wish to report suspicious activity, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888, or the San Francisco Police Department Tipline at 415-643-6233.
Thanks to reader Pat D. for the tip on this story.
UPDATE 3/9/17: The Board of Appeals voted 5-0 to uphold the 60-day suspension of the Paradise Health Center’s permit. Based on the code, the business will be allowed to re-open after their suspension ends. Revoking their permit was not an option, nor was it argued for, at the March 8 hearing. You can watch video of the meeting here.