Program gives ex-prostitutes a fresh start

EVERETT — It was a week after she turned 17 when Nicole met her pimp.

He was smooth and attentive, and she was convinced that he loved her. Then he persuaded her to have sex with strangers for money. In the first three hours as a prostitute, she made $750. The pimp took the cash. He bought Nicole some shoes and clothes.

“When you’re young and you kind of come from a broken home you look for the next person to give you the feelings you never got at home,” Nicole said.

Over time her gifts disappeared. She got black eyes, bruises and threats instead. Nicole was isolated from her family and friends. She relied on the pimp for everything. She wore his brand, a tattoo of his name that marked her as his property. He made her work in the Puget Sound area and across the country, pocketing all the money. He beat her if she stepped out of line. He promised to blow up her mom’s home if she left him.

“I had some chances where I did get away. I think I left my abuser three times the whole time I was with him and every time that I ran away I had nothing to run to,” the woman said.

Nicole recently spoke to a group of reporters who were invited to learn more about the FBI’s efforts to combat sex trafficking. Her last name is being withheld to protect her identity.

Experts say women like Nicole may want to escape sex trafficking and prostitution but often believe they have no choice but to stay. A task force in Snohomish County is working to give women a choice.

Plans are underway to create a place for women to rebuild their lives.

“Women want to leave. They may not have any education. They often have criminal history and may have drug and alcohol issues. They don’t often have any place to live. It’s very difficult to walk away,” said Paula Newman-Skomski, a nurse with Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse.

Newman-Skomski is part of an effort to start a two-year program for women who have worked as prostitutes. It will give women a place to live, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling, medical and dental care, education and job training. Eventually, the program also will include a small business run by the participants to help them build job skills and also make money to support the program.

Called Peoria House, it’s named after the Illinois city where President Abraham Lincoln in 1854 gave a speech attacking slavery. The house is being planned by the Sexual Exploitation Intervention Network of Snohomish County. The network, a coalition of local agencies, aims to end child sex trafficking.

Since 2006, the group has established a 24-hour hotline and created protocols for police, prosecutors, medical personnel and other responders to assist victims. They also are working to inform the community about sex trafficking.

“Prostitutes are seen as throw-away women. They’re not,” Newman-Skomski said.

About 200 girls and women are engaged in prostitution in Snohomish County, she said.

The women often were sexually abused as children. Runaway teens and foster children are more at risk to be victims of sex trafficking. Pimps often target teens who lack strong family ties.

“Most of the girls end up in these situations because they have nowhere else to go,” Nicole said.

Her pimp brought in girls who were as young as 14. Many had been in foster care.

Early on the girls are manipulated to believe the pimps are their boyfriends. The men make promises to take care of them, but soon the girls are controlled by violence and intimidation. Many become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Peoria House is being modeled after Magdalene, a program in Nashville, Tenn., that started in 1997 with one house. It now includes six houses that function without live-in staff. The program operates Thistle Farms, employing more than 40 women, including graduates of Magdalene. The women make bath products, candles, papers and teas. The money, along with private donations, is used to help fund Magdalene. About 72 percent of the women are clean and sober 2½ years after joining the program.

Representatives of the Nashville program visited Everett earlier this year. The task force here is forming a board of directors and working to create a nonprofit to run Peoria House. They’re also raising money for the project, which they estimate will cost about $100,000 to start up. They are looking for private donors. Last week, the Marysville Free Methodist Church hosted a walk to raise money for the project.

“There’s a good deal of community support, already,” Newman-Skomski said. “I think we can make it work here.”

The program would be open to women, 18 and older, because it’s more difficult to get girls social services once they become legal adults, Newman-Skomski said. Organizers hope to create partnerships with local colleges to help the women obtain high school diplomas. They hope local business owners will lend their expertise to set up a business that the women can run. Profits would help pay the cost of the program.

“This will give them hope for the future,” Newman-Skomski said.

Nicole spent about four years with her pimp. In 2007 she ended up in the hospital. Her eye socket was shattered. Her hair was caked with blood. Her thumb and wrist were broken. She’d been beaten for several days. The pimp was charged with assault. He bailed out of jail, hunted Nicole down in Oregon and convinced her to hide from police. Prosecutors were forced to drop the case.

Police eventually tracked Nicole down and, with the help of a federal victim advocate, Nicole testified against the man in 2009. He was convicted and is serving 20 years in federal prison.

Three years later, Nicole has a full-time job, a place of her own and college plans. She has reconnected with her family and credits the victim advocate for helping her see beyond her past.

“I have come long way. I’m still dealing with my trials and tribulations. I’m just trying now to overcome them and let others know that the girls aren’t as bad as everyone thinks they are,” she said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

More information

To report human trafficking, call the county’s 24-hour hotline at 425-258-9037. To request more information about trafficking or to set up an educational presentation send an email to humantrafficking@providence.org.

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