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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

STARS Counselor/Adovcate Testifies before the New York City Council

The STARS (Services to Access Resources and Safety) Advocate/Counselor, Sarah Dolan, testified yesterday at the New York City Council hearings on Sex Trafficking. Below, is the text of her testimony. The STARS initiative, funded by the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, is a project of the Center for Court Innovation at two demonstration projects, Bronx Community Solutions and Midtown Community Court. The entire STARS team is thrilled with the testimony. 

Sarah Dolan
Advocate Counselor
Sanctuary for Families
Testimony before the New York City Council
June 27, 2011

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure and an honor to testify before you today.  My name is Sarah Dolan, and I work for Sanctuary for Families on one of its newest projects: Services to Access Resources and Safety, or STARS.  The STARS project acknowledges the unique needs of adult survivors of sex trafficking and seeks to provide them with trauma-sensitive services as an alternative to incarceration.  As the Advocate Counselor, I am based full-time in the Bronx Criminal Court and work in conjunction with Bronx Community Solutions.  Working with women on an individual and group basis, I conduct counseling sessions, provide safety planning and case management services, and link victims to a range of other legal, health, and social services.  Funded by the federal Office on Violence Against Women, the project’s mandate in the broadest sense is to shift society’s understanding of women arrested for prostitution from one of “offender” to that of “victim”.   

For many, the term “prostitute” conjures up an image of a woman selling her body for sex because she chooses to because “she likes it”.  I am here to tell you that of the nearly one hundred women I’ve seen in the last year, not a single one of them stays in the commercial sex industry because she wants to.  And why would she?  When 94% of women in street prostitution experience sexual assault, 80% have experienced or been threatened with violence, and 75% have been raped by one or more buyers, we must question the assumption that these women are on the street because they choose to be there.  So why do they stay?  They stay not because they like it, but because after a lifetime of trauma and abuse, and stigmatized by a lengthy criminal record, they literally have no other choice.  STARS exists to give them that choice back.

Lakeesha’s first arrest occurred when she was just 15 and under the control of a pimp, her trafficker.  At the time she encountered him, Lakeesha had run away first from a home in which her stepfather was molesting her, and then from a group home that failed to give her the love and support she desperately needed.  Like many domestic sex trafficking victims, Lakeesha believed that her trafficker was her boyfriend.  She carried out his demands that she prostitute because she both feared and loved him.  Just as Lakeesha was simultaneously a domestic violence victim and sex trafficking victim, her pimp was simultaneously her batterer and her trafficker.  Both the UN Trafficking Protocol and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act recognize that children subjected to exploitation by an adult are inherently powerless and vulnerable, making Lakeesha, at 15 years old, a victim of sex trafficking.  

Now, at 20, Lakeesha is still in prostitution, although not under pimp control.  Some might contend that Lakeesha has become a free agent and is no longer a trafficking victim, but those of us at Sanctuary believe otherwise.  Adult women in prostitution who first experience sexual exploitation as children (which we may assume to be the majority of prostituted women, since the average age of entry into prostitution is 13), should be recognized and protected as trafficking victims.  But, if there is no pimp, then who is the trafficker?  Under the standard of the UN Trafficking Protocol, which understands traffickers to be those who harbor or receive prostituted people by means of “the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability”, it is evident that sex industry buyers or “johns”, who prey on vulnerable women like Lakeesha, should also be considered traffickers.

The tragic reality is that trafficked children often remain in conditions of prostitution as adults because they are so deeply traumatized that they see no alternative.  And while I just said that they see no alternative, it would be more correct to say that no alternative exists for them.  We wonder, “why they don’t just get out there and get a ‘real job’?”  When Lakeesha tried to do just that, by participating in a training program and applying to get ‘a real job’ with a home health care agency, she was denied employment eligibility by the Department of Health due to her eight convictions for prostitution, the first of which took place when she was still a minor and under the control of her pimp.  Trafficking survivors are being arrested in the hope that it’ll ‘teach them a lesson’ and be the impetus they need to stop selling sex for good. However, each arrest only lengthens their criminal record, further stigmatizes them as criminals, and provides yet another obstacle in their way to engaging in legitimate employment. 

So what, then, is the solution?  First, we must begin to recognize that the vast majority of adult women in prostitution are victims of childhood sexual abuse, are victims of intimate partner violence, and are victims of sex trafficking.  As such, they urgently need intense, sustained holistic services including shelter, counseling, legal assistance, and economic support.  The acute level of trauma that these women have suffered means that they are likely to need mental health services that specifically address post-traumatic stress disorder.  Since many have turned to alcohol or drugs to dull their psychic pain, they often need substance abuse programs tailored to the needs of victims of gender violence.  And because many have become dependent on the sex industry for economic survival, educational and job readiness assistance is paramount.  Indeed, at Sanctuary for Families we believe that the holistic approach that helps classic victims of domestic violence leave abusive relationships is precisely what can help victims of sex trafficking to leave their pimps and the sex industry.

Second, we as a society, and especially those within the legal and social services communities, must begin thinking and talking about prostitution differently.  We must acknowledge that the majority of adult women in prostitution are victim by replacing terminology that portrays these women as criminals and free agents—words like “prostitute” and “sex worker”—with language that makes visible the harm they have endured and continue to be subjected to, like “prostituted women” or “victims of sex trafficking”.

Finally, we need to recognize that arrest and prosecution only further stigmatize and punish women whose exploitation in prostitution reflects their lack of choice.  Instead of holding them accountable for the violence that is done to them, it makes far more sense to focus our law enforcement resources on those in the sex industry who make the meaningful choices—the patrons and the pimps.  New York State has strong anti-trafficking laws which, if properly enforced, can do precisely this.  Unfortunately, a recent legislative development does just the opposite.  Just last week, the New York State legislature passed a new law that raises the penalty for prostitution in the vicinity of schools while completely ignoring the primary role—and culpability—of the men who patronize.  This law reflects the old victim-blaming approach that many of us are working to end.  I urge City Council to send a resolution to Governor Cuomo urging him not to sign this bill. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bronx Community Solutions Represented at Bronx Probation Symposium

Wednesday, June 22, 2011
On June 15, DoP and the Bronx Borough President hosted “Small Steps, BIG CHANGES,” a symposium on Adult and Juvenile probation services.  Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. joined DoP Deputy Commissioners Ana Bermudez and Clinton Lacey in welcoming an audience of DoP staff, service providers and probation clients to the event.  Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson and Bronx Administrative Judge Efrain Alvarado also spoke.  A panel of DoP Branch Chiefs , Supervisors, Probation Officers, and Probation Officer Trainees from our Adult and Juvenile offices briefly explained the work they do and the services they offer before taking questions from the audience.  Representatives from service providers such as Bronx Community Solutions, Children’s Aid Society, FEDCAP and Mustard Seed set up tables and provided information to the probation clients.  The event was organized by Assistant Commissioner Sharun Goodwin.  Click here to view photos of the event.  

Reentry Initative Featured on Bronx Net

On June 9, 2001 myself and the co-chair for the Bronx Reentry Working Group, Dr. Pamela Valera from Albert Einstein College of Medicine were interviewed on the show Perspectives on BronxNet.  Click here to view the show.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Newark Community Solutions Opens its Doors

Last night, my Director and I attended the opening ceremony for Newark Community Solutions, the sister project of Bronx Community Solutions. Newark Community Solutions is using the same community justice model to address low-level offending in the Newark Criminal Court.  We were proud to be at the opening of Newark Community Solutions, and were inspired by the moving speech by Mayor Corey Booker. The event rejuvenated us to do our work here at BCS.  Below, find the notice from BJA Justice Today about Newark Community Solutions. 

Newark, NJ Launches Community Justice Initiative
On June 16, 2011, the City of Newark, New Jersey launched an ambitious community justice initiative to combat crime and improve public confidence in justice, the first of its kind in the state.
Mayor Cory A. Booker; Municipal Council President Donald M. Payne, Jr.; Business Administrator Julien X. Neals, Esq.; Municipal Court Chief Judge Richard E.A. Nunes; Bureau of Justice Assistance Senior Policy Advisor Kim Ball; Essex County Superior Court Assignment Judge Patricia K. Costello; Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray; the Center for Court Innovation; Newark Municipal Court Judges; and other dignitaries held an opening ceremony to launch Newark Community Solutions, a court-based community justice initiative that brings the justice system and the community together in order to improve public safety and restore public trust in the justice system.
Newark Community Solutions gives Newark's judges the ability to sentence low-level offenders to a combination of punishment and help—with restorative, visible community service performed in Newark's wards and with social services that focus on offenders' underlying problems, such as substance abuse, mental illness, or unemployment. At the same time, Newark Community Solutions seeks ways of engaging Newarkers in "doing justice"—by giving residents input in program priorities and forming a community advisory board to identify disorder hotspots for offenders to clean as part of their community service sentences.
Newark Community Solutions was planned and is operated by a remarkably broad public-private partnership that includes the City of Newark, the Newark Municipal Council, the New Jersey Administrative Office of Courts, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the non-profit Center for Court Innovation. Other key partners include the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, Newark's Center for Collaborative Change, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, the Nicholson Foundation, and the Office of the Newark Public Defender.
Excerpted from the City of Newark's press release.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bronx Community Solutions Reentry Partnership Featured in Daily News

Ex-cons find help re-entering society with new Bronx community program

Tuesday, June 14th 2011, 4:00 AM

Ramon Semorile, an ex-convict, is acclimating back into society with the help of Mandy Restivo, a task force social worker from the Bronx Re-Entry Working group.
Richard Harbus for News
Ramon Semorile, an ex-convict, is acclimating back into society with the help of Mandy Restivo, a task force social worker from the Bronx Re-Entry Working group.
After being hauled off to jail for the 26th time, capping a criminal career spanning 16 years, Ramon Semorile looked back on his life and saw nothing.
"I couldn't continue doing the same thing over and over, because I would end up in jail all my life or I was gonna get killed," said Semorile, 51. "That's when I decided to change my life."
Semorile's recidivism is a pattern seen in thousands of men across New York City, especially in the Bronx, so Bronx Community Solutions and other groups have formed the Bronx Re-entry Working Group.
The immediate goal of the fledgling group is to give the estimated 128,000 former prisoners living in the borough a forum to discuss future plans and find organizations that can help them transition back into society.
The reentry group will meet tonight at Bronx Recovery Center at 509 Willis Ave.
"Manhattan has a very strong task force looking at reentry issues, but there is no coordinated group in the Bronx looking at these issues," said Mandolin Restivo, deputy project director for Bronx Community Solutions. "Aside from just the sheer numbers of people coming home [from prison], the Bronx has high levels of poverty and low levels of health, so all these issues converge to create a lot of problems."
Semorile got caught up in the wrong crowd in his teens and helped fuel the drug trade that gripped the city during the 1970s and '80s.
"It was chaotic. There was a lot of abandoned buildings, gang members, hard drugs. You would get robbed by your own neighbor," said the Dominican Republic native, who lived in Soundview. "Children were growing up by themselves."
Restivo and other members of the reentry group want to help paroled prisoners from reverting to their old ways.
"The major goal is to provide an information-sharing exchange," said Pamela Valera, an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who is researching health behaviors of ex-cons in the Bronx for a major survey next fall.
Valera and Restivo added they also want to develop a reentry court similar to that in Harlem, which provides housing case managers and job-training programs.
Semorile said the road he took may have been different had there been a similar group at the time. He received job training at a transitional facility and he has been a crew supervisor at Bronx Community Solutions for five years, guiding petty criminals coming out of arraignment.
"I tell them, 'It doesn't matter how many times you got arrested, it's what you do after the arrest,'" he said. "I always try to grab that one that really wants to change their life."
Tonight's meeting is from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Pizza will be served. For more information, call (718) 618-2495.

Read more:

Monday, June 13, 2011

STARS Success Story: Advocating for Employment Opportunities

"Trina" first came to the Bronx Community Solutions office last August, just ten days after her 20th birthday.  Even at that young age, she was one of the most  challenging clients for the STARS Advocate/Counselor:   She had initially been mandated to complete ten sessions, and was then re-arrested within a month of starting the mandate, which increased her court obligation by another 10 days.   Reticent? Yes, at first. Then Trina began to open up and tell the Advocate/Counselor the most intimate details of her life which was full of traumatic events, including childhood sexual abuse, being an adolescent run-away, being placed in a  residential youth center.and then ending up with an older man who became her boyfriend and, later, her pimp. Leaving her presently with no high school education, no family to turn to, and no way to support herself.

During our time together, Trina began the emotional work that helped her begin to heal from a lifetime of trauma and the practical work that helped her gain admittance and complete a home health aide training course.  Trina's future suddenly seemed brighter. She now had a training certificate under her belt that would allow her to pursue legitimate employment.  However, a huge step backwards came in the form of a letter from the Department of Health (DOH) stating that she would not be eligible to work as a home health aide due to her criminal history of prostitution.  With the help of Sanctuary for Families' Legal Center and Bronx Community Solutions, Trina and the Advocate/Counselor pulled together a response to the DOH and won a huge victory when they reversed their decision and reinstated her eligibility to work.

Although finished with her court mandate, Trina continues to come in to see the Advocate/Counselor on a regular basis for counseling and for help thinking through the world of opportunities she now sees laid out before her.