For Americans in the Sex Trade, Still Little Hope

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Feb. 9, 2011

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Two years ago this month, I wrote a cover story that profiled the struggles of Mimi, a 20-year-old girl from New Jersey who was just two months into recovery after spending five grueling years in what players call “the game”—street-level prostitution. The winners of which are pimps who earn big bucks off the backs of women and girls who, studies show, average 12 years old when they are first recruited.

“Mimi hopes to find salvation in Philadelphia, at a safe haven called Dawn’s Place,” I wrote. Dawn’s Place is a residential recovery center in Philadelphia designed specifically for women and girls looking for a way out of “the game.”

With nowhere to go—ex pimps were hunting for her and her parents wouldn’t let her back home—social workers were helping Mimi hide out while she waited to get into Dawn’s Place. When the story ran, the Dawn’s Place was set up but sat empty while its board searched for funding.

“Once it’s fully staffed, [Dawn’s Place] will help women and girls like Mimi sort out the psychological, emotional and financial wreckage that are the obstacles to real recovery,” I wrote.

I remember Mimi as a cute kid, with a childlike frame and huge eyes set into a tiny face. She looked so young she was regularly carded for cigarettes. She matter-of-factly relayed a few examples of what happened to her while her “boyfriend” pimped her out in Vegas: a john pounded her skull into the pavement, she was whipped with hot metal wires and forced to service roadside johns through fever, fear and broken bones.

“I want to go to Dawn’s Place and get counseling. I want to go to school very badly,” said Mimi during our interview. “I want to be independent. I don’t want to rely on other people.”

Social workers were helping her deal with hospital bills and get a new birth certificate. “If a former pimp catches up with her, she could be killed,” I wrote.

Mimi never found salvation in Philadelphia, or anywhere else. She killed herself in New York City last summer.

“We had bad timing,” says Mary DeFusco, founding board member of Dawn’s Place and director of training and recruitment at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

“You have to catch these women when the iron is hot, when they really want to make a change and then hope you can start that change right away,” DeFusco says.

When Mimi needed Dawn’s Place, she was denied access because the organization couldn’t find funding to support services for American girls, though it did find funding for foreign girls.

“What we got is funding for the foreign trafficked women through the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops),” DeFusco says. “We get it for providing case management services to foreign women, but for the domestic women, we get bupkis.”

There’s a strange disconnect between awareness of—and subsequently, services for—foreign-born victims trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation and American-born victims. While awareness and social services for international human trafficking has skyrocketed thanks to journalists like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and celebrity advocates Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, little has changed for Americans exploited in the commercial sex trade.

To this day, Dawn’s Place hasn’t been able to secure funding to treat American victims.

Instead, the program relies mostly on private donations. These days, Dawn’s Place accepts domestic victims but by the time they figured out how to do so without funding, Mimi had already secured an apartment and job and seemed to be doing all right. Brandy, Mimi’s social worker, says that after that, Mimi gave up on Dawn’s Place.

Though DeFusco didn’t know Mimi personally, she says it’s “heartbreaking” to hear about Mimi’s suicide. Without missing a beat, DeFusco relays a similar tale about a woman named Candace. Candace went up to a Daily News reporter asking for help. The reporter relayed her information to DeFusco. But by the time DeFusco went to meet with her, she was told Candace died four days earlier. DeFusco still keeps a letter Candace wrote asking for help on her desk as a reminder.

“If you don’t catch them, they die,” says DeFusco.

Mimi wasn’t her real name. Born in Russia and adopted by American parents in New Jersey at six years old, Mimi was given a Russian name, an American name and then whatever street names pimps assigned. When I told her she could choose her own name for the article, she lit up like a kid at Christmas.

“I still have messages from her on my phone,” says Brandy. (Brandy would rather we not print her last name because of the covert nature of some of her work.) According to Brandy, Mimi was doing well for a while after the article. She was proud of herself for speaking out. She moved to Allentown, landed a job as a waitress and an apartment.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. Ray said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 02:53PM

“A very sad article and it begs the question, how can papers such as PW accept advertising dollars from massage parlors as listed on pages 41-42? Are those foreign-born trafficked girls less traumatized?”

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2. Glomarization said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 03:27PM

“Is this journalistic penance for that "edgy" piece last August in where a pseudonymous PW contributor in the Lush Life column wrote about getting a handjob from a massage parlor in Chinatown?”

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3. Dan said... on Feb 11, 2011 at 12:28PM

“A sad story even made worse by PW's portrayal of the Covenant House in Philadelphia. CHPA is one of the leading agencies in the country working to end human trafficking and it is because of their work in this area, as well as housing and working with homeless youth, that thousands of young people have been helped off the street and given the necessary resources to have a positive outcome in life.”

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4. Tara Murtha said... on Feb 11, 2011 at 02:30PM

“Please note there is not a "portrayal" of Covenant House as an organization, just a policy reported as relevant to this particular woman's story. Thanks.”

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5. Aurelia said... on Feb 12, 2011 at 07:53PM

“It is absolutely heart breaking to hear this kind of thing! It's even more heart breaking to hear that there is no funding to help American's being trafficked, but there is for foreign. I'm not saying that foreigner's shouldn't be helped, because they are being tortured and mistreated just as badly as American victims, but it surprises me that this country can come up with the money to help other people before they help their own. A truly tragic story and it just makes my blood boil at traffickers, pimps, and our American government for failing to help these kids (this is coming from someone that serves in the military). Keep in mind, it's not just girls this is happening to, there are plenty of boys that are sold into this horrific life as well. Let's not forget about them.”

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6. Kate said... on Feb 13, 2011 at 10:03PM

“It is disgusting that violence against sex workers right here in Philly is so common that it could be called "business as usual." Thank you for the article and for bringing this issue more publicity.”

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7. Eric Hamell said... on Feb 14, 2011 at 09:41PM

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Why are we waiting till after people are traumatized to help them? If free, community-supervised shelters were available to children and teens who are abused or run away for whatever reason, *at their option*, few would fall prey to pimps in the first place.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 02:53PM

“This is a heartbreaking story, and it is just one of many.

We should be ashamed of the policies, or pimps, or johns, and anyone else who enables women like Mimi to be lost to suicide, and we should be ashamed of the sexism and misogyny that permits us to ignore the darker side of the sex work industry.

It's unfortunate that the article failed to mention the important work done by Project SAFE, a volunteer organization that promotes human rights-based public health among women working in prostitution on the street in Philadelphia.”

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9. Angie said... on Jun 6, 2011 at 09:22PM

“You all bring up a lot of great points. I'm not from the Philly area, but I've been doing a lot of research on this global problem. I'm looking to partner/volunteer with groups and organizations & individuals around the world to help put and end to this human rights issue. However, trafficking has victims on all sides. It's not just girls, boys, women & men. You have to also look to the resasons why "johns" go looking for this, and why traffickers do this. I have seen interviews with people who used to be traffickers and got out, Not all of them did it by choice, but for fear of being killed for not doing it as well. Regardless, of which group someone wants to help. It's defintely a mutli-faceted problem that needs to be brought out into the light and stopped.NOW!”

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10. Anonymous said... on Oct 23, 2011 at 05:06PM

“There is a lot of controversy over the topics of sex trafficking, sex slavery, human trafficking and forced prostitution. Regarding what the definition is, the research methods used to find statistics, what the definition of a victim is, the number of child and adult victims involved, forced vs. unforced sex, how the actual prostitutes themselves feel about it, and legal vs. illegal prostitution.

There is a growing number of well respected researchers, journalists, scientists, professors, that have concluded in their research that the sex trafficking, sex slavery concept is based on emotion, morals, and monetary funding rather than facts, evidence and proof. They state that very few kidnapped, forced against their will, physically abused, raped sex slave prostitutes for profit have been found throughout the world. Their research concludes that women who enter into this type of work do so of their own free will. They also state that there are many anti-prostitution groups who simply do not like the idea of consensual adult prostitution and have distorted the facts in order to push their agenda and receive funding and money into their organizations in the form of donations, grants and to change the laws about prostitution. They state that these anti-prostitution groups use made up child sex trafficking statistics which they have no proof or evidence of in order to gain public acceptance for their cause.

Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

http://bebopper76.wordpress.com

http://sextraffickingtruths.blogspot.com/

http://www.villagevoice.com/sex-trafficking/

http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/thread00272_trafficking_hype.htm

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11. bebopper76 said... on Oct 23, 2011 at 05:13PM

“There is a growing number of well respected researchers, journalists, scientists, professors, that have concluded in their research that the sex trafficking, sex slavery concept is based on emotion, morals, and monetary funding rather than facts, evidence and proof. They state that very few kidnapped, forced against their will, physically abused, raped sex slave prostitutes for profit have been found throughout the world. Their research concludes that women who enter into this type of work do so of their own free will. They also state that there are many anti-prostitution groups who

simply do not like the idea of consensual adult prostitution and have distorted the facts in order to push their agenda and receive funding and money into their organizations in the form of donations, grants and to change the laws about prostitution. bebopper76”

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