Bellevue Massage Therapy Arrests Show Need for Improved Professional Oversight: Guest Editorial

Licensed massage therapist Lavon Watson says that better oversight of massage school accreditation would help prevent situations like the recent spate of arrests of Bellevue massage therapists.

Recent events in Bellevue regarding the arrest of numerous Chinese massage therapists for fraud in obtaining their massage licenses has gotten some media attention, see , but the problems associated with illicit massage have been around for a long time.

Unfortunately both legitimate Western-based massage practitioners, as well as their Eastern counterparts, whose medical traditions go back thousands of years, all have to suffer from guilt by association because of these incidents.

Illicit massage parlors should have been a thing of the past many years ago when the state finally licensed massage practitioners as health care providers here in our state. For a while, this regulation seemed to do the trick, but over time the gains have been eroded by unscrupulous business owners, and even human traffickers, who see these business fronts as a perfect setting to carry out some of the worst of all crimes. Trafficking operations appear to be somewhat rare, but that this occurs at all should be unacceptable. 

In the Bellevue cases there has been no indication of trafficking so far; however, the same lack of oversight of our profession allows human trafficking to occur under the guise of massage.

Massage practitioners who want to transfer their educational credits from another state or another country for licensing here can only do so with the approval of the Washington State Department of Health and the State Board of Massage. At some point in time the school, or schools, in China received this approval from the state, and a flood gate opened that became an easy route to a massage license here in our state. Although I applaud all of the work being done by  to clean this mess up, I also suspect the problem was avoidable and that these cases are not just isolated to the City of Bellevue.

Consumers of legitimate massage are ill served when massage licenses are devalued, and I suspect that some of the women who have been accused of these crimes were sold a bill of goods when they paid for their training certificates. Because of the cultural differences in play, and other factors, I suspect that some of the suspects arrested in this investigation were likely victims themselves to some degree.

However, I don’t believe that the media have yet picked up on the real story here, which is the lack of oversight by the Department of Health and the Board of Massage. Although I am sympathetic to issues regarding staffing and budgets, having worked in law enforcement myself for more than 20 years, there’s a level of incompetence here that allowed for this to happen in the first place.

There is plenty of demand for legitimate massage here in our state, and with that comes a high level of interest in the profession. But how we screen those who wish to do this work ultimately determines the quality of services.

Some Washington State schools are moving in the right direction with by creating massage programs for students with English as a second language, such as , which has bilingual instructors who speak Chinese.

This has the potential to be a game changer over time, creating a much better system of control, as well as an opportunity to engrain sound ethical behaviors in the students. However, this should not be done in a way that diminishes the value or skills of practitioners of Eastern forms of bodywork, but rather be done to supplement them.

Time will tell, but clearly the way we are approaching these issues now is flawed, and unfortunately the Bellevue cases should be viewed as the tip of the iceberg, and should sound an alarm that we can no longer deal with massage licensing in this manner as it pertains to out of state schools.

Lavon Watson, L.M.P.



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