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July 13th, 2011 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

The Prostitution Report

A sex-worker treatment program fails key benchmarks and raises privacy questions.

news1_prostitutes_3736IMAGE: Andrew Roberts
     
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Three years ago, prostitution was engulfing 82nd Avenue.

Arrests were up 43 percent. Sex workers stalked the avenue day and night. Shady johns trolled the street looking for hook-ups. And neighbors flooded the cop shop with complaints.

City officials vowed to tackle the problem with an innovative program to help prostitutes start new lives through mentoring and treatment.

The results are in, and they’re mixed. 

WW has learned that the city-funded program, called New Options for Women, has fallen short of several key benchmarks. And while police and treatment providers hail its successes, some prostitutes have chosen jail over treatment because the program requires them to sign paperwork allowing their information to be turned over to police.

Back in 2008, officials cited a moral imperative to end prostitution.

“The truth is a lot different from the fantasy,” Commissioner Randy Leonard said at the time (see “Street Fight,” WW, Aug. 13, 2008). “It is a living hell.”

Leonard and the Police Bureau said the solution was to borrow from a program that a cop named Jeff Myers and Leonard himself spearheaded to reform career criminals downtown: Instead of simply watching arrestees cycle in and out of jail, the justice system would force them into treatment so they could make a permanent break from street life.

About 150 women have entered the program since it launched in January 2009. Those who stay can receive counseling, free mental-health and addiction treatment, and help finding homes and landing jobs. It’s an ambitious plan, and one fully in line with the latest thinking on the problem of human trafficking—a view that sees prostitutes as victims of the sex trade rather than as criminals. The city has spent nearly $643,000 so far. 

But until now, no one could say how well the idea was working. LifeWorks Northwest, the nonprofit that designed the program and runs it, last month issued the first report card on its program at the insistence of Multnomah County, which acts as a pass-through for the city dollars and manages the contract with LifeWorks. 

That June 30 report—obtained by WW in a public-records request—shows LifeWorks Northwest has met three of eight goals it set for the program’s success: keeping clients sober, helping them form a safety plan, and persuading them to attend at least two treatment appointments. 

LifeWorks Northwest came close to meeting goals for  getting recovering prostitutes into safe housing and keeping them from being re-arrested.

The nonprofit fell far below its benchmarks for helping women enroll in school or find jobs, and for improving their overall mental health. 

The low point of the scorecard was in getting women to finish just two-thirds of their treatment. LifeWorks Northwest had hoped to get 60 percent of the women to meet that goal. Only 18 percent did.

The report covered only six months, from December 2010 through May 2011. And LifeWorks Northwest staff members say their outcomes have improved since the program started in 2009.

Beth Glisczinski, addictions services director at LifeWorks Northwest, says prostitutes are some of the most traumatized clients her organization has ever seen. Many come from a lifetime of abuse and relapse several times after entering treatment. Initially, treatment in the program was supposed to last six to nine months. 

But Glisczinski says the program has learned that success usually takes a year or longer. Some clients have gone on to new lives and written glowing reports about the program.

“Knowing this population, we’ve had a lot of successes,” Glisczinski says, sitting in a small conference room in the nonprofit’s Rockwood office. “A lot of these women have been on the street for five or 10 years. They come in here, and their lives get better.”

Compared with a similar program in Texas, the Portland effort shows mixed results. In its 2010 annual report, Dallas’ Prostitution Diversion Initiative claims 34 percent of its clients completed treatment. That’s double the 18 percent who completed two-thirds of their treatment at LifeWorks Northwest. 

Leonard insists the program is worth the money.

“I’m not at all disappointed,” he says. “It often takes repeated attempts at recovery for people to succeed, so I’m not surprised they’re not meeting the goals they set out for themselves.”

Cops apparently agree. This spring, when funding for the program was threatened by city budget cuts, the Police Bureau’s director of services, Mike Kuykendall, stepped in to save the program with $120,000 from the police chief’s budget.

That’s enough to keep the program running through November. After that, its future remains uncertain.

One person who hopes the program stays is Officer Randi Miller, a three-year member of East Precinct’s Prostitution Coordination Team. After the program started, prostitution arrests citywide dropped by 31 percent in 2009 and by 46 percent a year later.

“It’s not something you can fix with the wave of a wand,” Miller says. “[Prostitutes] have so many underlying issues to deal with.”

Miller is one of four officers on the prostitution team who work directly with the LifeWorks Northwest staff. They meet once a week to share information about how the women are doing in treatment, who’s staying clean, and whether any clients have reported problems with their pimps.

Because the city funds the program, the clients are required to sign a form allowing treatment providers to share wide-ranging information with police. The form says they can provide the cops with a client’s medical and psychological reports, treatment results, and information on her drug and alcohol use—although staff say they don’t divulge personal information.

Many of the women are in the program on a judge’s orders, as a term of their probation. If LifeWorks Northwest reports a woman is skipping treatment, Miller says police will try to contact that client. In some cases, she could land back in jail.

Close cooperation with the cops is crucial to the program’s success, Glisczinski says. But it has also caused a handful of potential clients who approached LifeWorks Northwest of their own accord to back out of participating, says Carey Cogswell, clinical supervisor for the program.

And close ties to the police have caused at least three criminal defendants to choose jail over treatment. One of those women talked with WW. She asked that her name not be used to avoid embarrassing her family.

The woman, 43, has spent two decades in the Portland sex trade—not because she’s traumatized or addicted, she says, but simply to make money. She’s also been arrested more than 90 times. This spring, after violating her probation by walking too close to 82nd Avenue, she chose to spend 120 days in jail rather than attend LifeWorks Northwest.

In an interview in Inverness Jail, the woman said police have harassed her in the past. She said she refused the program because she doesn’t need treatment, and also because she doesn’t like the fact that treatment providers share information with the cops.

“I’m not going into a program and talk where I know it can be used against me,” she says. 

The woman’s court-appointed attorney, Stephanie Engelsman, says she knows of at least two other defendants who have refused the program for the same reason.

“These women are very vulnerable,” Engelsman says. “The idea that these officers who are harassing these women at times are also involved in their treatment, I think, is just too much for some of the women to handle.”

Not all clients have a problem with the police being involved, Glisczinski says. 

“You might find that helpful if you’re trying to make a change,” she says. “You might find that not helpful if you’re not trying to make a change.” 

 
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