Unconventional Court Helps Prostitutes Regain Lives

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A woman stands before Judge Paul Herbert. She is in jail for solicitation. Judge Herbert just accepted her into CATCH Court, a two-year intense recovery program for women involved in sex trafficking. The other women are current CATCH Court participants.(Photo: Mandie Trimble / WOSU)
A woman stands before Judge Paul Herbert. She is in jail for solicitation. Judge Herbert just accepted her into CATCH Court, a two-year intense recovery program for women involved in sex trafficking. The other women are current CATCH Court participants.(Photo: Mandie Trimble / WOSU)

Prostitution is often called a victimless crime. Some see women as the problem. But human trafficking advocates said most prostitutes are threatened and coerced to have sex for someone else’s profit. In part two of a two-part series, WOSU reports a new law and unconventional court is helping former prostitutes regain their lives.

It’s about a quarter after one on Thursday afternoon, and about 20 women sit around eating pot roast with potatoes and carrots.

One woman turns around and introduces herself. She says she’s new to this program … only a week. She’s 29 years old and has been on the streets, and a prostitute, since she was 14.

The program is called CATCH Court. It’s a real court of law at the Franklin County Courthouse, albeit a unique one.

CATCH stands for Changing Actions To Change Habits. It tries to help prostitutes restore their lives.

Judge Paul Herbert leads the court. And at one time, he thought the women were the problem. But one day after a string of domestic violence cases, a woman was brought before him.

“She looked exactly like one of these victims that I’d been seeing. I mean, I was in that state of mind where I could see that. And I looked at her. She was a prostitute? Yeah, I looked down at the folder and it said solicitation. And I thought to myself, how could that be?” Herbert said.

Research into the criminology behind prostitution startled Herbert. He found one-third of prostitutes begins before they’re 15; two-thirds before they’re 18. And nearly all of them are runaways.

For the judge, a light bulb went off.

“And so that’s part of my mission in life now is to change the culture of people that were thinking like I was to people thinking like I am now; to start to help protect the women and girls right here in Columbus and as far as we can get it,” Herbert said.

Herbert developed CATCH Court in 2009. Instead of spending time in jail, the women take part in a two-year program. They’re on probation and go through intensive addiction rehab and therapy programs at Maryhaven or Amethyst.

Forty-year-old Rita Lynch said the program turned her life around. Lynch’s addiction to heroin took her to the streets of Columbus where she faced beatings by pimps or dope boys. She was arrested 14 times for solicitation along with various drug charges. Lynch has been a part of CATCH for a year.

“We get arrested, we go to jail, we get let back out, we have nowhere to go, we have nowhere to turn. So we go back to the streets. Judge Herbert has changed that in tremendous ways,” Lynch said.

“I really do believe in you, so if you ever need anything,” Vanessa said.

Vanessa is a 26-year-old woman whose pimp forced her to have oral sex with more than a dozen men a day. She’s telling the newcomer to the group — a 29-year-old who was on the streets for half her life — to be cognizant of the addictions’ head games.

“Because our disease will tell us it’s not a big deal, it’s just a fleeting thought. My disease tells me that all day. But I have to tell on it. Did you hear that? Listen to the whisper before you hear the scream. I’m proud of you. Thank you,” she said.

Vanessa, who was one of the first CATCH women, has been sober for 496 days.

“How does that feel? Unbelievable,” she replied.

Vanessa said she’s grateful for the program. Otherwise she said she likely would still be caught in the arrest cycle Lynch described.

Last year, between January and August, police made about 1,000 solicitation arrests in Columbus. Only five Johns were arrested the entire year. Those kinds of numbers are typical. For years, law enforcement saw prostitutes as the problem. But the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition’s Kae Denino thinks that’s changing.

“So this year, we’re thinking we’re going to have a lot more reverse stings, we’re thinking we’re going to have a lot more Johns school programs,” Denino said.

The coalition also helps educate police on human trafficking.

Other changes are coming soon. Later this month, Ohio’s human trafficking law takes effect. It took five years to get it passed, making Ohio one of the last states to have one. Democrat State Representative Teresa Fedor sponsored the bill which allows for the prosecution of traffickers and it makes it a felony.

“I heard many, many times prostitution is the oldest (profession). Everyone knows it. That’s why you filled it in. But no, prostitution is the oldest oppression in the world. So that mindset is now going to change and we’re going to prevent what’s been happening,” Fedor said.

Soon Fedor will introduce legislation to keep children from being charged with solicitation. Instead they would receive services like other victims.

Advocacy groups like Gracehaven and Doma International are finding unique ways to help local sex trafficking victims. Gracehaven soon will open a home for girls who have been trafficked, the first of its kind in Ohio. And Doma will open a residential pretreatment center for women in the CATCH program. Doma’s Julie Clark said women sometimes have to wait three months for a bed at one of the treatment centers, and she said that’s too long.

“It’s a very small window to get them into this treatment. And so the longer they’re in jail, the less motivated they are to work on their recovery,” Clark said.

Vanessa said she continues to work on her recovery. And she’s looking forward to more precious moments with her three-year old son.

“But mommy, I wanna pop. We’ll go get one in a minute, OK.”

Vanessa went on to say, “I want to grow and I want to help people grow. I don’t know. I want to live. Like I’m excited about actually living. I haven’t done that in a, I’m not sure I’ve ever done it. For real.”

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