The average age of a girl who enters prostitution is 14. In the years following, she may face sexual abuse, addiction and other forms of exploitation. To cut short that trauma, if not prevent it entirely, Phoenix law enforcement and nonprofits are increasingly teaming up to get victims of sex trafficking off the streets permanently.
Organizations receive victims from the Phoenix court system or Child Protective Services. If the girls agree to enter the program as an alternative to jail time, they then go through rigorous classes and therapy. They also receive housing, medical treatment and other resources. “There are nonprofit and some faith-based organizations, which can help with counseling, resources and training, which can be provided to individuals to help them out of their high-risk lifestyle,” Phoenix Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Steve Martos said.
StreetLightUSA was founded in 2009 and accepted its first girl in 2011. They can currently serve 48 girls at a time and have helped over 100 in the past four years. The girls allowed to stay at the nonprofit’s facilities are usually between the ages of 11-17. However, if they are working or pursuing a community college education, they can stay until they are 22. StreetLightUSA works with law enforcement to teach first responders the symptoms of sex trafficking, an important skill as many victims are too afraid to admit to or are unable to recognize their situation.
The DIGNITY service, founded within the nonprofit Catholic Charities in 1997, has similar aims. The DIGNITY Diversion program works in tandem with the Phoenix City Prosecutor’s Office to prevent future offenses and reduce prostitution. It is a shorter option at 36 hours compared to the DIGNITY house program, which is a year long. If a girl successfully completes the Diversion program, all charges are dropped. Even after the girls finish the legal process, the Diversion program will keep working with them.
Even victims who only partially complete the program are better off. A 2011 study from the School of Social Work at Arizona State University and the City of Phoenix Prosecutor’s Office tested the effectiveness of the program. Those who successfully completed Diversion were the least likely to be rearrested within 12 months, at just 6.4 percent. Those who partially completed the program stood at 19 percent, and those who only completed the entrance interview were at 27.1 percent.
“We would always encourage partnerships with nonprofit or faith-based organizations if we believe they can help reduce criminal activity,” Martos said in an email. But both programs make sure to do more than just reduce the numbers. At DIGNITY, Diversion programmers make sure to repeat one mantra over and over, day after day to every girl – “What you did is not who you are.”
Learn more at Alexandra Scoville’s Downtown Devil article: Nonprofits work with Phoenix law enforcement to keep victims of sex trafficking off the streets.