Philly is one of a handful of places in the U.S. that offers safe haven to former prostitutes.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 26, 2009

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After the beating, Mimi tried to escape by running through the woods. But there was a fence, and she didn’t get over it in time. A rival girl from the stable grabbed her and beat her up. She was dragged back to the pimp.

Looking at Mimi, it’s disturbingly obvious why pimps repeatedly recruited her.

Mimi’s got a child’s frame and a very pretty baby-face—she looks barely 13 in her blonde ponytail and dangly silver heart earrings. About 5 feet tall, she has the polite demeanor of the baby-sitter next door. The thin strokes of black liner that rim her eyes and white frosty eye shadow smudged across her brow bone make her eyes look as big as a Japanimation character.

How long can a girl like Mimi walk down a city street before a car pulls over and a pimp tries to get her in? “Fifteen, 20 minutes,” she says.

It’s hard to imagine Mimi working 20 hours a day turning tricks in cars and hotel rooms with strange and sometimes violent men—never mind at 15 when she must have looked even younger.

As Mimi tells her story, the need for Dawn’s Place becomes more clear. Getting away from a pimp is only the first part in a long journey of recovery. Studies show that the persistent lack of autonomy, violence and fear leads to post-traumatic stress disorder for 68 percent of prostitutes. Sometimes Mimi will see a guy who looks like the man who broke her nose then tried to force his penis into her bloody mouth and she panics, and once again feels the urge to run.


Current U.S. laws related to exploited children in the commercial sex industry don’t include American citizens like Mimi. While the problem of trafficking has exploded, legislation to protect its victims lags behind.

In 2000, the Victims of Violence and Trafficking Act finally made the human trafficking of people born in foreign countries on American soil illegal. Under this law, when foreign-born girls are discovered being abused in the commercial sex industry, they’re recognized as victims and protected by the Department of Health and Human Services. If they meet the requirements, are willing to assist in the investigation of traffickers and have applied for a temporary visa (or are approved by the Department of Homeland Security), they’re extended the same benefits as refugees.

A couple months ago, five young Liberian sex slaves were discovered living in a house in Upper Darby. After they were found, four of the five girls were placed in protective care. The fifth girl disappeared.

But when sexually exploited American children are discovered, they don’t get certified; they get arrested and branded as willing participants of the sex trade. A criminal record piled on top systemized physical and psychological trauma makes it highly unlikely for domestic sex slaves to lead a normal life.

So far, one state has taken a first stride toward helping American-born children who are exploited in the sex trade. Last June New York State passed the Safe Harbor Act, which will “create a presumption that a person under 16 years of age who is charged as a juvenile delinquent for a prostitution offense is a severely trafficked person.” It’s currently waiting to be signed by the governor and is scheduled to take effect by April 2010. According to Gov. Rendell’s office, Pennsylvania doesn’t have any such law in the works.

In the eyes of the law, girls like Mimi are seen as criminals. Yet the traffickers’ and street pimps’ methods of recruitment and retention—targeting the youngest kids with the least resources, stealing and withholding ID documents, and the ancient slave-keeping strategy of debt bondage—are often identical, whether the girls are foreign-born or American.

According to one study, 62 percent of “prostitutes” report having been raped, 73 percent report getting beat up and 72 percent being otherwise homeless. Forty-eight percent confess to being raped at least five times. Research shows 90 to 92 percent of people selling their bodies on the street want to get out.

In Philly, the average prostitute is dead by 40. But by opening Dawn’s Place and creating a counseling model that deals with the reverberations of the trauma of prostitution, Sabella is determined to help refugees of the game escape and heal. These girls will learn how to survive outside of the sex trade and even examine where age and circumstance blurs the concept of choice.

For Mimi, the urgency of getting into Dawn’s Place is palpable. “I know if he ever found me, I would die,” she says, referring to one of her ex-pimps. “He would kill me.”


Before Sabella was woking on opening Dawn’s Place, she would hear her female mental-health clients say phrases and slang that, at first, she didn’t understand. Then she figured out that they were referring to their experiences in “the game.”

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