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For Victims of Sex Trafficking, A Therapeutic Court Provides A Way Out

Listen to part 2: A Therapeutic Court Provides A Way Out For Trafficking Victims

It’s not something you expect to see in a courtroom: 35 women, chatting, laughing, eating lasagna. But brunch before the session is a weekly tradition at an unusual court in Columbus, Ohio.

Once the plates are cleared away and everyone sits down in a semi-circle facing the bench, a probation officer steps to the center of the room, with an empty plastic bin and a big smile.

“You know I love you so much, right?” she says, as she collects everyone’s cell phones, to a chorus of groans.

Next it’s time to present new members with welcome gifts: pink T-shirts with the words “DOPE TO HOPE” written in varsity letters. The judge asks each newbie how many days she’s been clean, and each gets a round of applause. Outside the circle, the room is packed with onlookers – staff from social service agencies, attorneys: mostly women.

The upbeat atmosphere is a stark contrast to the life that brought the participants here, one that still threatens to draw them back. Presiding Judge Paul Herbert explains the security guards standing outside the courtroom today are here for a reason: “There was a guy that showed up that had trafficked one of our women. [He] filled her arm up with heroin and threw her in a dumpster hoping that she would die,” he says.

These weekly court sessions are the core of a special program for victims of sex trafficking in Columbus. Herbert started the program—called CATCH  Court (Changing Attitudes to Change Habits)—in 2009. CATCH Court is what's known in legal terms as a specialized docket. Women arrested on prostitution charges in Columbus can opt into this program – where they get safe housing, counseling, and close supervision instead of jail time.  The participants also have histories of addiction, and treatment is an essential part of the program. 

As he moves through the docket, Herbert calls each defendant by her first name. His style of communication is informal, warm—more camp counselor than judge.  “Melanie! Hey girl, hey!” he calls out. “We haven’t seen you here in a while.”

Melanie steps to the middle of the circle and apologizes for her absence – she’s been having a hard few weeks. She just moved, and her 12-year-old daughter recently revealed that she had been abused. Melanie feels guilty, she says, for letting it happen. She thought about cutting herself. Instead, she explained, she got a tattoo, talked things over with a member of the CATCH Court staff, and scheduled an appointment with her therapist.

"He said we're going to love you until you can love yourself. And...I see something in you that you can't see yet."

From Herbert, there’s no reprimand about missing court. Instead, he says he’s proud of the way Melanie handled the bad news. “This is an example of where I want you all to be in this program,” he tells the group.

He asks the women if they have anything to say to Melanie. “You inspire me, woman to woman,” says one. “I have seen you grow,” says another.

In CATCH Court, Herbert practices what he calls trauma-informed judging. “You have to be very, very careful that you're restorative in nature,” he explains. “If you, with your black robe up there, you're looking down on them, and they have a full history of being treated poorly by men and judges, [and you treat them harshly] then they will go into a trauma response, and they won't hear you any longer,” he says.

A Shift In Mindset

Herbert’s court represents a small but growing trend in the justice system. A handful of courts have started to treat people charged with prostitution differently from the rest of the system. These “problem-solving courts” courts screen defendants for signs of abuse and human trafficking. Their goal is not to punish the women, but to help them heal from the trauma that often lead them to the streets and holds them there.

“What you're seeing is the beginning of the next biggest phase of the justice system,” Herbert says. “And that is trauma-informed care. If you want to have more effectiveness in your outcomes dealing with certain defendants you're going to learn this.” 

Before he started CATCH Court, Herbert was sentencing about 1500 women per year on prostitution charges, and watching the same women cycle in and out of the system. “I would just give them the basic jail sentence and send them on their way,” he says. “And they would go six months or however long, they'd recidivate, [and I’d] send them back to jail.”

Herbert says he had no idea that abuse and coercion were at the root of many of these women’s stories. “In my mind ‘Pretty Woman’ was the scenario of what prostitution was,” he admits. The other judges he knew saw it the same way: a victimless crime.

But one day in court in 2009, Herbert had a realization that would alter the course of his career. He was hearing testimony from domestic violence victims—at arraignment hearings for their abusers—as well as women brought in on prostitution charges. The work was gut-wrenching: listening to stories of attacks, seeing women with black eyes, or clumps of hair pulled out, or with broken bones.

“And then the sheriff brought the next defendant out on the wall, and it was a woman, and she looked like one of these domestic violence victims,” Herbert remembers. “And I looked at the file that they handed to me and it said ‘prostitute.’ And I was like ‘How am I seeing that?’ "

Herbert did some research and made calls to courts in New York that were running alternative programs for sex workers. What he learned confirmed his new understanding: The women coming before him on prostitution charges were victims, and they needed help.

New Choices For The First Time

When Stephanie Rollins heard about CATCH Court in 2013, she was serving an 80-day jail sentence for prostitution. She was 44 and had been to jail on similar charges many times over two decades. She’d heard if she got into CATCH she could get out of jail in 10 days. That sounded great; her mind was already on her next high. But on her court date, Judge Herbert surprised her.

On a return visit CATCH Court, Stephanie Rollins catches up with a "sister in recovery" who she met while in the program.

“He said we're going to love you until you can love yourself. And that I see something in you that you can't see yet,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow!’”

Rollins would spend the next two years under Herbert’s supervision, eventually graduating from CATCH.

Like other women in the CATCH program, her path to the justice system started with childhood trauma. Rollins had lost her father when she was seven. She was sexually assaulted by a family friend when she was nine, and ran away from home when she was 11 to escape a violent step dad. Things didn’t get better on the streets.

There she was taken in by a strange man. “I was hungry, and he took me to his house, he fed me,” she says.

He made her feel loved, she says, and “anything he asked of me I would do.” That included performing oral sex, and sometimes other sex acts, with men who visited the house for parties. Though she didn’t know it, Rollins had been trafficked for the first time. It wouldn’t be her last.

In less than a year, Rollins became pregnant, and her trafficker kicked her out. She went back home. Her mother forced her to abort, then sent her to a residential facility for girls, where she frequently escaped.

In 2015, one out of five runaways reported to the National Center for Missing And Exploited Children was likely a victim of sex trafficking.. And several studies have shown a high incidence of childhood abuse among adult sex workers.

Herbert says for women from backgrounds like Rollins’, getting involved with the justice system is predictable. They act out in school, and teachers treat them like bad kids. Children’s services are often ineffective. “And then after a few years, the court system becomes involved at all levels,” he says.

Recognizing Victims

Sex trafficking courts like CATCH emerge from a larger movement to bring trauma-informed practices into the justice system.

“Problem-solving courts are part of this reformation of the criminal justice system, to try to look beyond the adversarial nature of our system,” says Karen Miner-Romanoff, a criminal justice researcher at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, who has studied CATCH Court.

Other examples include drug courts, mental health courts and family courts that use a more therapeutic approach to working with minors.

She says with populations like these, the traditional punitive approach doesn’t prevent recidivism. Instead, therapeutic courts give these “victim-defendants” a chance at rebuilding their lives.

Credit Andrea Muraskin/Side Effects
Judge Herbert holds up a T-shirt designed for new entrants into CATCH.

Over the last decade the idea that many sex workers are victims has been gaining steam in the justice system.

Federal and state governments have strengthened laws which recognize human trafficking as a crime. It is defined as the exploitation another person for labor or sex acts through “force, fraud or coercion.”  The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000 and reauthorized four times, most recently in 2013. At least 39 states now have laws including coercion and fraud in the definition of sex trafficking. Ohio state law was updated in 2011 to include violent coercion of sex workers in the definition of human trafficking.

According to Miner-Romanoff, about 50 percent of prostitution in the U.S. fits this legal definition of trafficking.

But though laws have changed, changing practices in arresting and sentencing takes time. A 2015 report from the US State Department notes that some trafficking victims are still prosecuted as criminals, and that many states lacked funding to implement new anti-trafficking laws.

And therapeutic programs for sex workers, like Herbert’s CATCH Court, are still rare.

One of the first such programs was the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan, started in the mid-1990s.

“Nobody's going to self-identify as a trafficking victim, or maybe even a victim,” says Danielle Malangone, who directs anti-trafficking initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation and helped start the Midtown Community Court. “But if you start to dig a little bit deeper and ask questions about how individuals became involved in prostitution, the vast majority have experienced some form victimization or abuse.”

Today at Midtown Community Court, women arrested for prostitution are sent to a course of five to ten group and individual therapy sessions instead of jail. Malangone says the program is short because the typical sentence for prostitution in New York City is just a few days’ jail time.  

Several other courts offer a jail alternative program for sex workers in places like Wilmington, Delaware, Queens, New York, and Portland, Oregon according to a report by the Center for Court Innovation. In Texas, such programs are required by law in certain jurisdictions.

At two years, CATCH Court is the longest and most comprehensive program of its kind in the country, according to Miner-Romanoff. Prostitution sentences in Ohio can last up to a year. So the incentives were there for Herbert to offer a lengthy probation program. That amount time, Herbert felt, was what it would take “to get on a path of recovery, real true recovery that can set them free.”

"These women feel completely vulnerable and scared initially. What do they know? They know the streets. They know their human trafficker."

The chance to get out of a lengthy sentence also provides incentive for women to agree to some of the program’s restrictions: for example, participants are typically prohibited from visiting the places where they were trafficked or bought drugs. And there are consequences to breaking the rules: the court may confiscate a woman’s phone, require her to wear a GPS ankle bracelet, or order a few nights in jail.

Miner-Romanoff says that a comprehensive program like CATCH is appropriate for women who are coming from situations where they have no support system. “These women feel completely vulnerable and scared when they come to do CATCH initially,” she says. “What do they know? They know the streets. They know their human trafficker. Often they still claim that they love their human trafficker, even though they're abused, coerced, threatened. And it takes that long for this behavior to change long term.”

From The Streets To A Home

By her early 20s, Rollins was regularly doing sex work, under the control of pimps.

In her teens Rollins had a son and a daughter and tried to build a family with her kids’ father. But he abused her. Eventually Rollins signed her parental rights over and walked away. It was a decision that drove her into her darkest chapter.

“I didn't care whether I lived or died at that point,” she says. “But my drug addiction had [taken] over.” Crack cocaine became her drug of choice. She danced in bars, worked as an escort, and caught a felony charge for forging checks.

Eventually she started working the street corners where dealers hung out. And that’s when she was trafficked again. The dealers would point out johns for Rollins to approach. They would front her drugs, then charge interest on the payment.

“If you don't bring that money back to them they physically harm you. They rape you they do whatever they want to you,” she says.

“You feel like it's your fault,” Rollins says of the violence. “You feel like you asked for it because you did the drug.” But the drugs also provided a way to block out her emotional anguish, she says. It was a vicious cycle.

Rollins was arrested many times. Time in jail was a break from life on the streets. She got regular meals and rest. But jail didn’t provide any treatment for her addiction or her traumas. She had intentions to break away from drugs, but they didn’t last long after she was released. “[I’d] always end up right back to crack,” she says. And that meant going back to the corner.  Jail became a revolving door.

Rollins’ time in CATCH broke this cycle.  At first, she wasn’t sure about the program, but while she was waiting for a bed to open up in a rehab center, she came to court every week, and observed how happy and healthy the participants looked. The court staff gave Rollins a recovery bible, and assigned her mentors. Gradually, she came around to the idea that it was worth giving up alcohol and all drugs – even cigarettes – for what CATCH Court was offering.

When a spot opened up, Rollins was transferred from jail to a housing facility run by Amethyst, a rehabilitation center for women.

Amethyst provided food, clothing, and household items for free. For the first time in her life, she had her own space: her own shampoo, soap, and towels. She learned to cook with the other women. Rollins says in her new surroundings, she began to develop a sense of self for the first time.

Stephanie Rollins uses an app to track the days she's been clean and sober.

Before Amethyst, “I didn't know nothing about me,” she says. “I didn’t know that my favorite color was green. I missed all the seasons, because I was always drugged up in basements or hotels away from the sunlight. So when I was walking in the park and I smelled that fresh-cut grass, it was really, really awesome.”

She started to attend recovery meetings, and take life skills classes at Amethyst. She made her first female friends.

Getting Emotionally Unstuck

Sobriety is a requirement in the CATCH program. Participants are given regular drug and alcohol tests, and if they come up positive, they can be punished with a few nights in jail. They receive addiction counseling and peer support. But the court also recognizes that treating the trauma that underlies the addiction is key.

“When someone stops using drugs and alcohol they don't have anything to numb the feelings. They don't have anything to block it out,” explains Linda Evelsizer, a trauma counselor at Amethyst who worked with Rollins.

Without treatment, people who have experienced trauma are unable to establish emotional distance from past events and small reminders can trigger them. “Whoever said that time heals all wounds, they lied. When someone experiences trauma it gets stuck,” Evelsizer says.

Evelsizer specializes in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy that’s thought to re-create the mental processing benefits of REM sleep, and is often used to treat PTSD. Evelziser also integrates talk therapy with visual stimulation.

Rollins remembers her first session with ‘Miss Linda.’ “I was at that point where things were so heavy on me, I was willing to do anything,” says Rollins. She had many traumas, and many triggers. For example, after her back was broken while working the street, any interaction with a man who looked even a little like her attacker set her anxiety through the roof. 

And the therapy helped release things for her: “My abandonment issues, and the trauma, the rapes, the beatings, and everything [came] up,” she recalls.

She still remembers the trauma, but “the intensity of it is no longer there,” says Rollins. Now, she says, she’s able to manage her triggers instead of having a stress reaction, or turning to drugs.

Rollins’ progress in CATCH was put to the test when she was hit with another trauma: the death of her adult son. “Death was a prime opportunity to go use,” she says. But this time was different.

Rollins says the support from other women in Amethyst helped get her through when she read the terrible news on a coroner’s report. “I had eight Amethyst girls around me, holding me, embracing me as I mourned. They didn’t let me isolate,” she says. She took other coping steps that she’d learned during the program: she cried, she journaled, went through the 12 steps of recovery, talked to her mentor and her sponsor.

“For the first time in my life I had to stand up, I had to be mom. I had to be a role model for my grandkids,” she says. “That was the first time I ever dealt with death.”

Credit Stephanie Rollins
Stephanie Rollins takes a selfie with her grandchildren

Staying off the streets and out of jail

Rollins graduated from CATCH Court last year. As a graduate, she is in the minority. Of the 166 women enrolled since the program began in 2009, only 24 have graduated – less than 15 percent. But Judge Herbert doesn’t measure success by graduation rate.

He lists examples of women who flunked out of CATCH Court, but are doing well: one woman runs a nonprofit that covers tattoos and scars for trafficking victims. Another manages a McDonalds. A third works for one of the prosecutors in Columbus.

The real success Herbert points to is the recidivism rate: 72 percent of women who have spent any time in the program have not committed a new crime. And according to Miner-Romanoff’s research, arrests for solicitation in the surrounding county, Franklin County, decreased by 32 percent between 2009 and 2013.

Herbert is considering expanding the CATCH program and the idea is spreading to other courts in Ohio. Cincinnati now has a court modeled after CATCH, and a Cleveland judge consulted with Herbert before setting up a human trafficking docket in 2014.

But a program as comprehensive as CATCH is probably not feasible across the country, according to Malangone, because laws and populations of trafficked women vary from state to state.

“There's not one model that's widely applicable to the entire country. It really has to be based on the jurisdiction, based on the individuals coming through that particular courthouse,” says Malangone.

There’s also the issue of cost. Herbert’s program relies on significant support from local nonprofits, like Amethyst, which pay for housing and treatment.

From Herbert’s perspective, the biggest challenge to the expansion of trauma-informed justice is changing attitudes about sex workers. "It's really hard to work against thousands of years of media saying that this is a profession that they've gotten themselves into, and that this is a choice that they've made.” But Herbert says when he has a chance to explain the issue as he’s come to understand it, minds do change.

Rollins is moving into her own place at the end of July, using a housing voucher provided by theCommunity Housing Network, a local nonprofit. She’s taking classes to get her GED and she works part-time at a Freedom A La Cart, catering company that hires human trafficking survivors. She volunteers as a mentor to women currently in CATCH, showing up at court regularly “to give some experience, strength and hope to the next girl,” she says.

Rollins says Amethyst and CATCH Court were like the good parents she didn’t have growing up: “They taught me the true meaning of healthy." And now, she says, "I love me. And that was the key ingredient. I didn’t love me all them years and now I finally love me.”

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a health news initiative covering public health.