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.
Mimi’s on the run. After five years of being whipped with burning wire, pummeled by bare fists and having her skull repeatedly smashed into concrete, the childlike 20-year-old—who’s had nearly 30 pimps since she was 15—is running as fast as she can from a life inside the teen-sex industry. Two months into her escape, she remains in hiding in New Jersey. If a former pimp catches up with her, she could be killed. Mimi hopes to find salvation in Philadelphia, at a safe haven called Dawn’s Place. Right now Dawn’s Place isn’t fully functional. The building is purchased and painted and permits are secured, but the board of directors is still seeking sustainable funding...
Project Dawn Court is Philadelphia’s newest problem-solving court, designed for women with repeat prostitution offenses. The first of its kind in the country, it aims to reduce both drug possession recidivism rates and the cost of jailing drug addicts by providing rehabilitative services under close court supervision.