Why is Prostitution Tied to Economic Development in Worcester?
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
The part-time liaison, who'll reach out to women and refer them to social service agencies that want to help, is expected to be included under an amended agreement with the South Middlesex Opportunity Council that included outreach efforts linking the homeless with services as part of Worcester's 2012 panhandling ordinance.
A request at Tuesday's city council meeting would assign the new position to be overseen by the city public health structure instead.
City Councilor Sarai Rivera, the chairperson of the Public Health and Human Services Committee, called the outreach position one “fragmented piece” of an overall collaborative, public health-focused effort underway to combat sex trafficking.
“That was my question,” Rivera said, asked about the incongruous outreach hierarchy. As chair of the health committee, Rivera said the Worcester Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation had otherwise made great strides, netting a lead organization, funding, and, most importantly, people around the table.
“One, we're having the conversation, and two, we're having the right conversation,” she said. “Now it's just putting all the pieces together.”
Public health-focused effort to help victims of sexual exploitation
The coalition formed in October 2012 following a report on prostitution by the Worcester Police Department. The alliance includes the city's Division of Public Health, law enforcement, hospitals, colleges, a dozen community-based organizations, and substance abuse treatment and recovery organizations.
Working groups setup cover communications, working with women, legal, community engagement, best practices, and reducing demand.
Using a startup grant totaling $46,376 from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, Spectrum Health Systems is partnering with the alliance and city health department to lead a yearlong initiative, “A Ray of Light,” that will train staff at local agencies to identify and respond to victims and survivors of sex trafficking.
Speaking at a public health committee meeting late last month, the city's director of public health, Derek Brindisi, said his department's role was to serve as facilitator for myriad organizations with different roles and perspectives.
“This was definitely a community and public safety issue,” Rivera said at that Jan. 30 committee meeting. “We couldn't arrest our way out of this problem. And the reality is we really needed to look at this through a public health perspective.”
Previous law enforcement efforts weren't solution-focused, she continued. “Systemically it wasn't working.”
The police department's 2012 report estimated about a dozen women working on a daily basis, out of a known pool of about 50 individuals, in spite of a continuous string of arrests of both women and “johns”.
“Police have been out there and doing what they do,” Rivera told GoLocal this week. But “it's unfair to tap police to do the job of social service providers. ... The police officers are not social workers.”
Athena Haddon, program director of Spectrum’s peer recovery support center in Worcester and project director for A Ray of Light, said the focus has been shifted away from arresting the women. “We're trying not to arrest and prosecute women because of other issues,” revolving around sexual and substance abuse and mental health.
“We'd like to address them more as victims and provide services for them,” Haddon continued. While agencies in the community treat many of the same individuals for substance abuse or mental health issues, the social network is largely unresponsive when someone acknowledges exchanging sex for money or drugs.
“We see a lot of these women already in our programs, and we weren't doing a lot for them. So this has been very wonderful having all these agencies at the table,” Haddon said Jan. 30 at the health committee meeting.
“I love that this is a collaboration of agencies,” she stressed this week, incorporating existing programs like the court-ordered Developing Alternatives for Women Now (DAWN) and the Community Approach to Reduce Demand (CARD).
Spectrum will lead the alliance in collecting information and social service agreements for women seeking to leave prostitution behind. The coalition is targeting 15 memorandums of understanding (MOUs) as a goal by the end of the year, with more always sought.
The emphasis in law enforcement meanwhile is set to turn toward traffickers and purchasers.
“We agree it's a public health issue, we agree it's complex, that there's not one thing that will address this issue,” said Janice Yost, president and chief executive officer of the health foundation. Speaking before the health committee, Yost said the foundation's grant would address the needs of victims seeking to leave prostitution.
First step is connecting women with available social services
Brindisi said comparing the rates of women accessing social services now and in a year would be one good measure of progress.
A Ray of Light will go toward developing a “train the trainer” program to help agency staff recognize signs of women engaged in sex for trade acts and then appropriately refer them to services, and a peer-to-peer survivor leadership program at Spectrum.
“The health foundation is supporting a piece of the issue, not the whole issue,” Yost said in an interview this week.
Yost and Haddon underscored the importance of having survivors, women who escaped the sex trade, as leaders in both the peer groups and agency trainings. “One of the greatest pieces in the project is the survivor leadership,” Haddon said.
“You can't understand the issue unless you understand the people,” according to Yost.
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