A New Dawn: Philly Court Uses Compassion to Fight Prostitution

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Aug. 3, 2010

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DeFusco offers a telling example. She recalls a young girl just out of high school who she recruited for the program back in January. Without Project Dawn Court in place, the system did the only thing it knew to do.

“They sent her to a drug rehab,” says DeFusco. “She didn’t have a drug problem.”

Before long, the girl fled the facility and slipped back into the ether.

“By the time we see her again, they’d know what to do with her,” says DeFusco. “Because by then, she’ll have a drug problem.”

DeFusco says that mindset puts “the cart before the horse.”

Project Dawn Court coordinator Laura Hokenson interviews women for the program, and confirms that this pattern is reflected in the records of candidates.

“A lot of women are going into prostitution without these substance abuse problems, then developing them, so usually we’ll see possession of controlled substances [on their record] but usually later,” she says. Of the 20 or so women Hokenson has interviewed so far, she says that’s the case for all of them.

“You get women who got stoned in high school, but none that were full-blown addicts before they get into prostitution and that’s what’s crazy,” says Hokenson, who says she was surprised by the discovery. “It becomes a whole convoluted cycle with the drugs. It’s the only way of escaping the prostitution they then do to fund their drug habit.”

Project Dawn Court is customized for each woman; her program is based on the results of the mandatory Forensic Intensive Recovery (FIR) evaluation—which determines treatment providers. Because the paperwork to order a FIR can take up to six weeks to process, women who enter the program sometimes sit in jail longer than they would have if they didn’t join Project Dawn Court.

The program is rigorous. It requires a commitment to at least three months of in-house therapy and, as necessary, counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, parenting classes, tutoring prep for the GED, job training and therapy specifically designed to address the repercussions of the commercial sex business.

“I don’t want to say prostitutes anonymous, but they’re specifically working on the exploitation,” Hokenson says.

Once a woman enrolls in Project Dawn Court, her plea is held in abeyance while she undergoes the program. If a woman fails, she faces an escalating series of sanctions that can include writing an essay or sitting in the juror’s box in a courtroom listening to prostitution cases all day. Messing up means slipping back to the beginning of that phase.

There are four phases to the program: the first lasts 30 days, the second lasts 90 days, and the third and fourth are 120 days each. At the successful completion of each phase, a woman receives a certificate and applause.

“For some of these women, it’s the first round of applause they’ve ever had in their lives,” says DeFusco.

Women usually live at a residential facility during Phases I and II. Then, like Kristen, they return home during III and IV. Throughout, they appear in court monthly to update Kirkland. If the woman fails out entirely—when the judge is sick of giving her chances—she goes to jail.

At graduation out of the program, possible after one solid year, their last case is formally dismissed with prejudice.

It’s a system DeFusco refers to as “the carrot and the stick.”

 Today is Kristen’s sixth appearance in the Project Dawn Court program. Her will has stayed strong since she signed up. After all, she learned about the program while sitting behind bars—then stayed an extra month just for the opportunity to get clean.

“I said you know what? I want to do it. I had no chance. I need the help.” She adds: “I’ve been running from this thing for years, not wanting to look inside myself. I was scared to.”

Of the dozen women enrolled so far, she’s at the head of her class.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. Hiroader said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 08:41AM

“The thing about "Compassion"..., It cost tax payers money,.. In 26 years , arrested 16 times ...has served 4 stints in jail... At 47-years old... After She’s 10 months sober she recieved a courtroom round of applause... {Are we on "PUNKED" tv here}... Where's Ashton Kutcher?... (Where'd I put that "duct tape" at?)... A 47 yr old prostitute retirement plan "Get sober" (smh)....

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2. Bella said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 09:39AM

“I am glad this women finally cleanned up. However most of us Mature escorts are not addicts, we are single mom's with college aged kids, who can't support ourselves by working at walmart, and rather not deal with an abusive spouse.
WHy are the JOHNS never thrown in jail. It is ironic to think these women would stop when they have no services, 80% of them where sexual abused as kids, and most where pimped out as kids and yes before you know it they are in their 40's, and have supported there kids, without welfare.
Until we do not prosecute consenting adults in private, then their is no comapssion. yes street hookers on drugs do need to clean up, by when LE STALKS US ONLINE, it becomes a WITCH HUNT> Pimps 25 to life, and Johns should pay fines not to the county court but to the vicitms and do communtiy service for womens shelters. The women should get services, they are victims whtehr they are 17 or 44. and have to take a class on the effects on the sex worker.”

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3. sexxxy_escort said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 11:35AM

“I agree with Bella. This article is good in that it addresse the problems with "street walkers" but most sex workers advertise on the interenet and are clean and college-educated. Sex work shouldn't be a crime in general, but getting it off the streets and helping those who are addicted to drugs and using sex work to support their habit should be addressed and ended. And if everyone who took money or other items (jewelry, houses, cars, etc.) in exchange for sex were to be prosecuted, then ther would be a lot of Main Line housewives sitting in jail right now.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 12:00PM

“Wow, the article shows how situations are deeper than one may have thought. This is an excellent solution, althought there may be better, but it is a great step. Maybe others will be inspired to find "out of normal" solutions. Excellent to read.”

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5. Ray said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 12:09PM

“Great article! Interesting this is coming from a paper which accepts advertising from prostitutes and massage parlors, the latter are known by law enforcement as engaging in sexual slavery.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 06:23PM

“I'd like to see an article following up this one but on the online escorting girls like those on BestGFE. They are the same girls but with a computer.”

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7. pete said... on Aug 4, 2010 at 10:40PM

“Politically I am a supporter of martial law but
with this issue no amount of law and order
or prison time for johns and janes will change
the fact that there are ugly men like myself
who will not get laid without prostitutes. I once
used the services of brothels which are
known hubs for sex slaves because I don't
have what it takes to be in a real relationship
with a woman. Like the ,"drug", problem we
need legalization and strict regulation of
brothels. It can be like going to the chiropractor
for an ,"adjustment". Clients of sex workers
are suffering a psychological hell because of
this need for sexual release, Thankfully I am
schizophrenic so my libido is almost gone.
Some sex workers are consensually delivering
a service that constitutes a saving mercy for
men who cannot be in relationships.”

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8. Pointer Obvious said... on Aug 20, 2010 at 08:41PM

“All the insight of this article is cancelled out by your week later celebration of a Chinatown "handjob" from the point of view of someone who couldn't articulate their way out of paperbag.”

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9. Joni said... on Mar 28, 2012 at 02:09PM

“I never had any record in my life till I became involved in prostitution at the age of 50. I couldn't get a job, my Mother was losing her house, I started dating then it just happened. At the time I was in it, I wasn't even thinking I was doing anything wrong. I was arrested the 1st time in a hotel room when my client turned out to be a Detective. They told me they were actually looking for pimps and didn't care about independent escorts. Not to worry. Well I was scared after this so deceided to just do it out of my home. Several months later 1 of my clients came to my home and turned out to be a under cover cop. My house was surrounded with cops with guns. They held guns to my Mother's,StepBrother's head and mine. It was horrible. That was 8 years ago and I'm still paying for it. The second arrest I was indicted with 2 felonies. My life seems over. If the first arrest was stricter and made me aware of what trouble I would be in I wouldn't have continued. It's to latenow”

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10. reader person said... on Aug 1, 2012 at 01:06PM

“I find the photos accompanying this article misleading and offensive. Why didn't Philadelphia Weekly show us how real, street-walking sex workers look? If it's possible to inappropriately sexualize prostitutes, this article did it. Congratulations. What a coup.
That said, thank you for the detailed narratives on women's experiences with the Dawn Project. I feel like Philadelphia is a city that tries really hard; often, its attempts are misguided, but I don't think Dawn's Court is one of those cases.”


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