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.
Want to know how much sex with a teenager costs? Just ask Mimi. It cost her everything. Two years ago this month, I wrote a cover story that profiled the struggles of the 20-year-old from New Jersey who was two months into recovery after spending five grueling years in street-level prostitution, where the only so-called winners are pimps who earn big bucks off the backs of women and girls.