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: 29 | Posted Feb. 25, 2009

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What she didn't realize was that to pimps and traffickers, securing an ID isn't dumb at all. It's a standard practice to take all forms of identification from their underage victims and either hold them or sell them on the black market. Mimi's Social Security card, birth certificate and passport were taken. Her birth certificate was sold for $500.

When Mimi starts talking about a puppy that was in the room while her ex-pimp was whipping her with the burning wire, she gets a goofy smile on her face.

"I thought it was cute, the little puppy. He was barking at him, trying to bite him," she says. "That little puppy, trying to save me!"

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 Traffic Act (PDF) 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. (PDF) 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."

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Comments 1 - 29 of 29
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1. more depressing crap said... on Feb 24, 2009 at 07:19PM

“arts and entertainment....hmm....i guess prostitution fits into that. nice try guys. every week your articles get more and more depressing. seriously, are you trying bring everyone down? what to do, where to go, whats hot right now in the city...where are these stories? Instead we get pregnant teenagers, brittle bone disease, and prostitutes. You make Philadelphia seem like the saddest place to live. Please wake up over there!! Or at least get some content relevant to the lives of the people that read your stories. We are young, hip, creative, fun loving, alternative, city-dwelling people. It seems you may have lost sight of that somewhere along the way.....”

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2. ...and said... on Feb 24, 2009 at 07:22PM

“oh yeah, and your "10 for 10" promo only has 7 promotions listed....just saying....”

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3. Fairytales said... on Feb 24, 2009 at 10:09PM

“Get the fuck out of Center City every once in awhile, dipshit.”

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4. ...and said... on Feb 25, 2009 at 07:06AM

“hey fairytales....nice one! You learn that great language in the 'burbs?? My point is we have papers and websites in the city that cover hard news. PW is not supposed to be one of those. Im just saying them to pick an identity and stick with it.”

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5. J said... on Feb 25, 2009 at 07:46AM

“I found the article eye-opening. This is a problem you hear about sometimes, but don't really take an interest in until you hear a real life story. PW, if you can get in touch with her, tell Mimi The Catholic Church offers haven for women in her situation and has been doing so for centuries. You can find the Philadelphia archdiocese's human services number in the phone book. To "more depressing crap": the e-mail is free, dbag. If you don't like it, then take yourself off. ”

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6. andrew said... on Feb 25, 2009 at 08:00AM

“"We are young, hip, creative, fun loving, alternative, city-dwelling people." You have no idea how stupid you just made yourself sound.”

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7. Virginia said... on Feb 25, 2009 at 10:25AM

“Thank you Ms. Sabella for this good work that you do in helping people to escape the horrible life as a prostitute. We need to get our so called leaders in this country to stop prostitution in all facets, whether it be in Washington D.C or on the streets of Newark, its all the same and equally as dirty. We need to expose johns on the front page of newspaper to let the world see what kind of men they are. Young men and dirty old men they should all be exposed and sent to jail, especially if the prostitute is under age. Pimps should go to prison just because they are pimps. We have funding for all stupid programs that save animals, and insect but we don't have programs for saving children .What hipocrites we have in Washington. And most of the johns are there! Thank God for people like Ms Sabella and their dedication to helping these people get their fives back. A child in trouble in this country means we are all in trouble. I will remember you in my prayers Ms Sabella. I can't think of a more worthwhile thing to do in this life than to help someone overcome hardships and claim their lives back.”

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8. Virginia said... on Feb 25, 2009 at 10:28AM

“Do seek the company of prostitures. You sound like a creep that would because you can't get a decent girl to go out with you.”

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9. help said... on Feb 25, 2009 at 11:25AM

“Check out the organizations HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) in D.C. -- It addresses a similar problem but in a way that's more sustainable and thoughtful, from my view.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Feb 25, 2009 at 11:38AM

“Please. The government should "stop prostitution in all facets"? easily one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. Should pimps be stopped? Of course. Should rapists? Well, duh. (But if you think our government is likely to ever get their act together enough to fix these things well... you're a more optimistic woman than I) What about those adult sex workers that are in it voluntarily and happy with what they do? Why should they not be allowed to engage in whatever relationships they deem fit for themselves?”

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11. Not a fan of exploitation said... on Feb 26, 2009 at 07:44AM

“Um, for a trafficking article, that is a pretty offensive photo.”

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12. Roberta said... on Feb 26, 2009 at 10:38AM

“While the cover photo is a bit much, i found the story about sex trafficing extremely informative. People have been saying for years that those in the Sex Work Industry are there voluntarily, make a lot of money, are always in control, blah, blah, blah. But Mimi's own words resonate in my mind -- "You’re never in control. Never" . The litinay of abuse she suffered is vile and is the signature of an industry that profits from violence aganist women and girls. Sex Worker pay for their silence -- physically, mentally and with thier lives. In Philadelphia, the Sex Workers Health and Safety Task Force has been meeting for a number of years, founded by the Philadelphia Women's Death Review Team (PWDRT). Our report (referenced in the story) indeed documents the short life-span of a sex worker, but we also determined that nearly all unsolved homicides of women were "prostitutes". And because of their line of work, sex workers are loathed and their needs disregarded. No one will touch the issue, so thank you Donna Sabella for articulating the issues that compel sex workers to remain in the industry, and for developing an alternative like Dawn's Place. It is a good beginnig for women seeking sanctuary from the life of a sex worker. ”

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13. John Markles said... on Feb 26, 2009 at 09:55PM

“Tara Murtha: As an occasional "hobbyist" (infrequent consumer of prostitution), I enjoyed reading this article about the dangers that many sex workers face. I'm not saying it will give me any pause in the future (sorry, but as the philosophers say, you can't go automatically from an "is to an ought"), and I think I would have appreciated learning the source of the many statistics your piece cites. On a more ironic note, after reading that "only 2 percent of commercial sex workers do such work voluntarily," I nonetheless loved turning to the back of the weekly for which you write and finding--as usual--the four full-colored (most likely full-priced) advertisements for escorts, erotic massage, and prostitution. I'll give PW the benefit of the doubt and assume that all of these ads were submitted by women (and T-girls) who comprise that rare "two percent" of purely voluntary sex workers. Or maybe I should assume that it's equally difficult for PW to go from an is to an ought about where they get their revenue? ”

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14. BS said... on Feb 26, 2009 at 10:42PM

“Just want to say TM that you did a fabulous job at this article and thank you!!! I am immensly proud to say that I am part of this. Mimi is also very proud to say it as well. People, I am not sure if you realize the true epedemic of this situation. I have heard of women and CHILDREN who have had their jaws ripped off, been stabbed in the vagina, had the soles of their feet burnt off and have been murdered by their pimps. There is something to be said about the strict fear and shame of being force inot victimization of prostitution. In terms of Dawns Place, I just want to say that for the 600,000 fchildren and the other hundreds of thousand of women (according to research) that are victimized each year, it is a shame that there are only about 39 beds for treatment for these women and children. The city, county, state, and world do not understand the need for women such as Mimi. I personally work with her and would move her into my own home if it were possible. Women such as her could use Dawn's place to become productive people of society and unfortunately society does not understand this issue. Please people, understand that these are truly victims and need help. The problem of prositituion will plague our communities until people recognize these poor women as true victims. DAWNS PLACE NEEDS FUNDING AND WE NEED TO HELP!!!! Thank you! Concerned caseworker”

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15. BS said... on Feb 27, 2009 at 12:27AM

“let mr also put a piece out there that the girls who the johns are givng money to informed me goes directly to the pimp!!!! so that fantasy that you are paying for services...GUESS whAT?! you are givng your mnoney to the black guy with corn rows on the corner...HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA..that is hysterical to myself...I believe that is one of the biggest mistakes in the fame..."NO BLACK GUYS: so next time...think about where your money is going.”

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16. Sam Morales said... on Feb 27, 2009 at 06:00AM

“We should not judge anyone that don't have the understanding. We should meet individual where they are at in they Life we as humans should have more patience in dealing with individual that need our support to make this world a better place to live in. So if you see someone in the street and I know that each of one of us has seem one individual in the street and you just walk away and don't do nothing tell me how that feel if it was one of your family that is going throug hard times, Thank you Samuel Morales ”

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17. Kathy said... on Feb 27, 2009 at 08:35AM

“Like many of the commenters on this forum, I work with women in Philadelphia who have been involved in sex work, and hope that Dawn's Place will be a place of healing and new opportunity for anyone who chooses to go there. Regardless of the moral or legal place of sex work in our society, it's heartening, rather than depressing, to know that help is availble to those who want and need it. ”

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18. Andy Stettler said... on Feb 27, 2009 at 02:06PM

“Philly Paper, I'm am so glad that you have finally brought this social justice issue to the front page of your paper. It's abut time someone stepped up and told Philadelphia what they need to hear and not necessarily what they want to hear. My only problem, and a big problem at that, is that the story talks about how horrible human trafficking is and then if you turn to the last few pages of the paper, PW is littered with escort adds, or "special message" opportunities. Do you honestly not realize that you are part of the problem as well as part of the solution? I know times are tough but take a stand like you did when you published the front page story. Realize that escorts and these special therapy sessions are littered with trafficked victims. I commend you for throwing this article in the faces of Philly, but I think it's time you guys took your own advice and began taking steps to end the horror story, the beatings, the rape that is Mimi's life. ”

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19. Ken said... on Feb 27, 2009 at 02:32PM

“you douche...PW should and does provide the stuff you're talking about as well as well written articles about the city. ”

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20. === said... on Feb 27, 2009 at 05:10PM

“Some of the responses here are very close-minded and selfish. This type of stuff doesn't just happen in inner cities, they occur in the "happy go lucky suburbia." It's not the best stuff to read about but there are millions of kidnapped women who have to deal with this. It's even more disheartening to read how selfish people could care less. These women don't have control over their lives and the few who work to help these women to give them a voice get shot down by ignorant people. So honestly GROW UP!”

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21. Weepy said... on Mar 1, 2009 at 04:57AM

“you're not nice”

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22. what'swrongwithpeople said... on Mar 2, 2009 at 01:26PM

“Dear the dickhead who wrote "more depressing crap", You're a dickhead.”

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23. Kim S. said... on Mar 2, 2009 at 06:46PM

“Thank you so much for printing this article. Ever since I first saw a documentary last year on MSNBC called "Sex Slaves in America," my life and outlook have been changed by learning about the horror of the human trafficking and enslavement atrocities that occur throughout the world, and more disturbingly, in our very own country and city. This is definitely an issue that needs to have more attention and awareness. While I applaud efforts such as Dawn's Place and other similar programs, I think that we as a society really need to start tackling the problem at the roots. It is not just the rehabilitation of these troubled and abused women that needs to occur; We need to go after the men that continuously seek services from these women and furthermore, we need to go after the men that perpetuate the psychological and physical abuse as pimps. It makes me sick that we pride ourselves on the ideals of liberty and justice and yet these atrocities go on everyday in practically every area (urban and suburban alike) of our nation. There needs to be stricter enforcement of the laws that regulate circumstances of human trafficking and slavery. As others have pointed out, it is very hypocritical that PW has published this article and yet their paper is filled with sex industry advertisements. I am currently looking for more impacting ways that I can help do my part to tackle this tragic problem, so if anyone has any suggestions, let me know. We thought we came a long way when Lincoln abolished the enslavement of black people, and yet slavery is still happening on this very soil, almost a century-and-a-half later.”

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24. lenni_lenape said... on Mar 2, 2009 at 08:49PM

“Not only an offensive photo, but take a look at the classified ads.”

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25. lenni_lenape said... on Mar 2, 2009 at 09:01PM

“I agree that human trafficking must be stopped, and that these defenseless victims must be rescued and given the opportunity to live whatever life they choose. However, I think relating human trafficking to prostitution is misleading, and confuses the real issues with each.. ”

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26. Kim S. said... on Mar 3, 2009 at 09:12AM

“Then perhaps you do not know enough about human trafficking. If you do your research, you'll find that human trafficking and the sex industry are highly related. Prostitution is one thing when women with a healthy psyche CHOOSE to engage in it, but most prostitutes are forced or tricked to come here through human trafficking rings and are forced to work as prostitutes while beaten, tortured and abused.”

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27. lenni_lenape said... on Mar 4, 2009 at 12:00AM

“You're correct. I do not know enough about human trafficking. I do not travel in those circles nor am I a journalist writing about them. However, I believe that associating human trafficking with prostitution, minimizes the atrocity of human trafficking. I also do not know where you Kim S. unregistered) get your information about "most" prostitutes. I do not care if people are sold to clean floors, human trafficking is human trafficking. I noticed one commentator remark that the cover picture was out of line. I agree. I also don't see the reason for personal attacks. My opinion is just that. I thought that was the purpose of journalism. ________________________________”

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28. Former sex indusrty worker who advertised in this paper said... on Sep 21, 2009 at 12:04AM

“You guys must really be slow..None of you all peeped one crucial fact this is the same paper ( PW) that has a adult services catergory..Strange.............”

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29. Anonymous said... on Jan 14, 2011 at 03:02PM

“the truth should be known .GOD BLESS YOU”


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