Article Re/Post: Delaware court dismantles prostitute rehab program. Margie Fishman | The News Journal Updated 8 hours ago Life after being trafficked for sex
Woman have few options after life in the sex trafficking world. Jennifer Corbett, Wilmington They stand at the courtroom podium, heads bowed. Beyond their swollen, black eyes lies a palpable fear. Court of Common Pleas Commissioner Mary McDonough empathizes with these weary women — prostitutes snubbed by respectable society. Many have suffered physical and emotional torment for decades, yet present a lacquered, impenetrable exterior.
One is in her 40s but appears much older. She asks to be sent to prison after being hit with a fine for driving without insurance. Her father sold her into prostitution as a teenager, she explains, and the drugs failed to deaden the pain. Prison would be a relief. Another young woman, who initially insists that everything is “fine,” waits to approach the sidebar before the words tumble out. She had been carrying a bag of clothes when she was beaten and raped on the street.
“Have you reported these crimes to the police?” McDonough asks.
“No — and I don’t plan to.” These are just two of the defendants who haunt McDonough, a commissioner since 2004. For five years, she spearheaded and presided over Delaware’s Human Trafficking Court, a special treatment court for adult prostitutes.
Then, in December, Court of Common Pleas Chief Judge Alex Smalls shut down the court with no immediate replacement.
Smalls’ decision to cut costs and consolidate the court into a new, multipurpose community court has riled trafficking victim advocates, who point to it as another example of Delaware turning its back on a 2014 state law that was supposed to help victims stop cycling through the criminal justice system and rebuild their lives.
A key measure in Delaware’s sweeping Human Trafficking legislation, championed by then-Attorney General Beau Biden, was to protect victims and offer them rehabilitative services to help them cope mentally and physically with past trauma. Under the law, sex workers would be spared criminal penalties for acts that they had been forced to commit.
The law defines a human trafficker as someone who knowingly recruits, transports, harbors, receives, provides, obtains, isolates, maintains or entices an individual to become involved in forced labor or sexual servitude.
McDonough’s New Castle County court — one of 14 nationwide when it was first established — was a lifeline for women troubled by low self-esteem and a history of physical and emotional abuse stemming from childhood trauma, according to Cheri Collins, vice president of Meet Me at the Well Foundation in St. Georges.
Representing the faith-based organization, Collins sat in on the court’s monthly hearings to connect with sex trafficking victims in Delaware and provide them with clothing, household goods and other services to aid in their recovery.
Now that the court is no longer operating, these women are “being re-victimized by the judicial system,” Collins said.
Smalls disagrees. In an interview earlier this year, he said that combining the Human Trafficking Court with other problem-solving courts, such as drug diversion and mental health treatment courts, will save staff time and offer participants a one-stop-shop for social services. Judicial officers are still determining the best model for the new court and who will be in charge of it, he added.
“It’s a streamlining of courts to maximize our resources,” Smalls explained. He said he could not quantify the total cost savings from the merger.
McDonough estimated that she spent no more than 5 percent of her paid time managing the trafficking court, not including after-hours work. The court generally met half a day, once a month and employed one part-time coordinator.
From its start in 2012, the court primarily targeted women involved in prostitution who had a high rate of recidivism. The mission was to provide an alternative to jail and promote self-sufficiency through education, job training, temporary housing and mental health treatment, including trauma counseling.
Previously, women arrested on prostitution and loitering charges who weren’t able to pay their fines would enter the revolving door of the criminal justice system, McDonough noted. Many racked up multiple probation violations.
Through the Human Trafficking Court, they pursued their GEDs and proudly displayed high grades at status hearings. Goodwill operated a training program that helped the women find jobs at local ShopRite stores. Law enforcement officials visited with participants to discuss safety concerns, following a rash of prostitute murders in Wilmington.
“The amount of trauma and violence that these women endure is hard to comprehend,” McDonough said in a 2015 interview. “They certainly have developed resilience but once we can break through their distrust of the system we see also a vulnerability —almost a child-like vulnerability — as if the emotional development was frozen in time.”
Clorissa, who asked that her last name not be published, wrote a poem, “Misunderstood,” when she graduated from the program in 2015. She left behind an abusive, controlling boyfriend, a heroin addiction and thousands of dollars that she earned daily selling her body along South Dupont Highway.
“It was strictly business. I was numb,” she remembered.
Now 29 and pregnant with her fifth child, Clorissa hopes to become a pediatric nurse. Right now, she is unable to work, she said, after her former boyfriend delivered a swift upper cut to her eye, causing vision problems.
“If you only took a moment to understand our pain/maybe then you could realize that we are very much the same,” she wrote on her graduation day.
Accustomed to smirking contempt, the women in McDonough’s court were nurtured and welcomed, Clorissa recalled.
“She genuinely cared about each and every woman.”
To be eligible for the program, participants had to demonstrate a history of trauma, be willing to receive treatment and have no pending felonies. Virtually all of them were women.
They typically completed the work while serving a one-year probation term on a misdemeanor charge to which they had pleaded guilty.
Before they could graduate, they were required to pass a series of drug tests and have no new charges or probation violations for at least three months.
After graduation, their court costs and fines were forgiven, but they still had to pay off restitution and Victims’ Compensation fund obligations. They left the program with personal budgeting strategies and leads on stable, drug-free housing.
Of 110 total participants about 30 graduated.
That low completion rate raised a red flag for members of the Criminal Justice Council of the Judiciary, who spent a year analyzing Delaware’s various treatment court programs at the request of Chief Justice Leo Strine.
“The council finds it difficult to continue to justify the resources that have been expended on so few probationers who have demonstrated a low rate of success,” the council wrote in its 2016 report, which recommended merging multiple treatment courts.
While praising McDonough’s dedication, the council encouraged the Human Trafficking Court to consider a diversion model so that participants could avoid criminal convictions.
Such an approach has been successful in Philadelphia, where more than half of the 128 participants in the Project Dawn Court have graduated since 2012, according to court records.
The alternative court, designed for defendants with a history of prostitution and drug offenses, promises to erase their current charges in exchange for completing Project Dawn’s yearlong treatment program.
In an interview, McDonough said that she had been exploring the diversionary model for years, but the Administrative Office of the Courts told her to put it on hold while the council completed its review.
Survivor or victim?
In its report, the council further questioned whether participants in McDonough’s court were actually victims of trafficking: “There is little evidence to suggest the defendants of this court are the subjects of an organized criminal enterprise.”
That’s a misconception, according to victim advocates. In recent years, the definition of a trafficking victim has expanded to include all prostituted people — whether they work alone or with a pimp. Free will is an illusion, advocates argue, when a woman has unresolved childhood trauma and tries to self-medicate.
Traffickers portray themselves as lovers and heroes, when, in reality, they are master manipulators who groom their recruits, according to Kim Mehlman-Orozco, a human trafficking researcher, author and expert witness.
“If somebody is a trafficked victim, they’re led to believe that they’re consenting to their own exploitation,” she said.
People who have been sexually abused as children are 28 times more likely to become victims of commercial sexual exploitation, according to the National Center for Youth Law. Many participants in Delaware’s human trafficking court had been abused by family members or ran away from foster care and into the arms of pimp who claimed to be a “boyfriend,” McDonough said.
They were also more likely to enter the criminal justice system on prostitution-related charges, such as loitering, drug possession or shoplifting.
Rarely would they refer to themselves as trafficking victims.
“I’m a survivor, not a victim,” Clorissa said recently.
Historically, local enforcement efforts have penalized sex workers more than pimps or buyers. From January 2012 to April 2016, there were 419 arrests for prostitution and loitering for sex in Delaware. During that same period, there were 145 arrests for patronizing a prostitute and 27 arrests against pimps promoting prostitution.
The first woman to complete the Human Trafficking Court program sewed her own dress and received a bouquet of flowers, McDonough remembered. It was the woman’s first graduation ceremony ever.
“What I saw from these women who are so often treated with disdain is that they began to realize their self-worth,” she said.
Over the years, McDonough has received letters and cards from other graduates. Initially, they were angry that she had sentenced them to Crest, a prison-based substance abuse treatment program. In the end, they thanked her for saving their lives.
The court also worked in concert with a federally-funded outreach and counseling program run by Brandywine Counseling and Community Services.
Under a five-year, $1.5 million grant, the WISH program reached more than 15,000 female sex workers, many of whom were sexually abused as children and became drug-addicted mothers.
Outreach workers fanned out over New Castle County to distribute free condoms, HIV tests and basic hygiene products like shampoo and tampons. They connected women with primary care and mental health treatment for depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nearly 600 participants in the treatment program reported lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, emergency room use and certain high-risk sexual behaviors, according to program leaders. A sold-out conference on women’s health and justice discussed ways to empower sex workers to adopt healthy lifestyles.
When the funding dried up in 2016, Brandywine CEO Lynn Fahey tried unsuccessfully to apply for mini-grants through the state. But prostitutes aren’t exactly a “warm and fuzzy” population, she acknowledged.
“The attention shifted to the opioid epidemic,” she said, “which is kind of interesting because it’s a lot of the same people.”
News Journal reporter Esteban Parra contributed to this story.
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Originally Published May 5, 2018