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Worcester Task Force Targets City’s Prostitution

Monday, February 04, 2013

 

The Worcester Division of Public Health (WDPH) has assembled a task force featuring members from local law enforcement, the medical community, the city's colleges and community organizations in order to tackle Worcester's ongoing trouble with prostitution.

"There are long-running debates about the level of harm resulting from illegal commercial sex, and the approaches communities have used to end prostitution," WDPH Director Derek Brindisi in a report to the City Manager and Council.

"At one end of the spectrum is the position that prostitution is illegal and should only be treated as a crime. At the opposite end are arguments that prostitution involving adults is not victimless, inherently harmful and should be treated through a social context by providing the proper services to support the women who are being exploited."

An Old Problem

The WDPH prostitution task force first convened in October of 2012 in the wake of a report from the Worcester Police Department on the city's prostitution problem and develop approaches for moving forward.

According to that October report, about a dozen of the city's roughly 50 active prostitutes are working on a daily basis. A number of Worcester's other prostitutes are currently incarcerated, enrolled in drug rehabilitation programs or not active.

The report from Chief of Police Gary Gemme came in response to calls by members of the City Council for more action on the persistent problem, which is centered mainly around the city's Main South area.

As of the WPD's report, the city had arrested 210 males for attempting to purchase sex for a fee since 2007, about one-fifth of a total of nearly 1,000 arrests for prostitution-related offenses during the same period.

A September 2012 sting by the city's Vice Squad in the Main South area resulted in 16 arrests, and a July 19 operation netted five more.

At that time, City Manager Michael O'Brien said the City would be ramping up its efforts to reduce the chronic issue of prostitution by beginning a joint effort between the city's Division of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts Medical School to research long-term solutions for Worcester.

The Task Force's Focus

According to Brindisi that task force has been divided into five working groups to focus on the different aspects of the issue.

Communications will determine the most appropriate language for talking about prostitution, figure out who to develop a community-wide informational campaign and offer guidance on communication and messaging strategies.

The Working with Women group will conduct small focus groups and interviews in Worcester, as well as other so-called "strategic locations" where active and recovering women in prostitution gather.

"Talking with these women will provide a firsthand perspective as to the nature of the barriers to recovery and potential needed resources from the community," Brindisi said.

Law enforcement officials and attorneys will make up the Legal Aspect group, offering insights on the existing legal system, sting operations, which Worcester has already been engaging in, and any legal hurdles to social and support services.

Brindisi said the Community Engagement group will focus on holding neighborhood meetings to gain insight as to how prostitution and its attendant issues are affecting families in the neighborhoods where it is most prominent.

Finally, the Local and Best Practices group will review and analyze how effective current programs in Worcester are, such as Developing Alternatives for Women Now (DAWN) at the YWCA and the Community Approach to Reduce Demand (CARD). The group will also explore other programs nationally to look for proven and effective programs or strategies that may work for Worcester as well.

Action Steps Coming Soon

The full task force, which includes Brindisi, WDPH Acting Commissioner Dr. Michael Hirsh, District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera, members of the WPD, representatives of Community Healthlink and UMass Medical School and Clark University to name a few, will reconvene on February 11 when each working group will report its findings.

"This information will be discussed amongst the group in order to develop our next action steps, with an end goal of having a set of recommendations to you by May 1, 2013," Brindisi said.

"The Division of Public Health along with our many community partners are committed to developing a set of recommendations that will reduce demand, expand social and treatment services, with a goal of eliminating street level prostitution in Worcester." 

 

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