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Ex-prostitute helps others battle for a new start

NCR Staff

The young prostitute in Kathleen Mitchell’s little convertible wanted out of life on the streets.

She was peppering Mitchell with questions: “Do you get over it? Can you ever get into a normal relationship with someone? When do you know the stigma’s gone away?” she asked.

At that moment, one of Mitchell’s neighbors went by, tooted his car horn and waved. Mitchell waved back.

“When you can wave to a man unselfconsciously like that,” Mitchell told the girl, “you’re over it. It’s gone away.”

Later though, when Mitchell told the story, she admitted, “The stigma never goes away for me.”

That’s because this high-energy grandmother with the short-cropped hair and ready smile made a decision so tough few would contemplate it -- to keep identifying herself as a former prostitute in order to work with women and girls trying to escape the degrading and dangerous life. She directs the Phoenix diocese’s Dignity (Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself) House.

Nobody’s born to the prostitute’s life, Mitchell insists. They’re in because they’re conditioned to it. Catholic schoolgirl Mitchell was 10 when a policeman molested her in her grandmother’s home.

Too ashamed

“I never told anybody. I was too ashamed. I carried that shame with me for all those years. I did not become promiscuous,” she said. “I went totally the opposite way. Went to Catholic high school, wanted to be a nun, but I met my husband-to-be.”

The Newman Center priest whom she, her mother and the prospective husband consulted told her, “You know, he’s a nice guy. He’s not nearly ready to be married.” The priest warned Mitchell, “If you insist on doing this, come and see me and I’ll give you $50 -- because you’re going to need it.” The priest was right, Mitchell said.

They wed. Her husband did not stay faithful. He had three or four children by other women during the marriage. Still caring for her own two children, Mitchell left. She was 24.

“Prostitution is the final piece of the jigsaw for the abused woman,” said Mitchell. Through a girlfriend, Mitchell met “a sweet-talking man who made everybody laugh. Everybody liked him. They didn’t like what he did but they liked him.” It took him three years to wear her down. “I started to love him even more than I loved myself, my children,” she said. “It was devastating.”

At 27 she was a prostitute.

“I’d kept saying no, I couldn’t do it. It was total conditioning. I remember the first time, closing my eyes, then looking through the shade out the window at the little red light blinking at the hospital across the road, asking myself, “What am I doing?” she said. “I learned to disassociate. I didn’t think again for another 12 or 13 years.”

By that time she was in jail. She’d come to Phoenix and was arrested. The city has mandatory sentencing.

Start of a program

She was inside for almost a year. “I watched the same women coming through the revolving door of the jail. They kept coming back. And I thought, “There’s got to be something for me. The jail had AA and those things, but I wasn’t addicted. So I asked the [prison] program coordinator, Sandra Indes, if we could start a program for women who wanted to get out of prostitution.”

It was 1989. Mitchell wrote around the country to places like Chicago’s Genesis House and Los Angeles’ Mary Magdalen House. With that information, she and Indes sat on Mitchell’s jail cot and discussed a program that Indes created and ran.

When Mitchell left jail she took a job as a cleaner at the police station while she got her degree in chemical dependency counseling. Then she went to work in a battered women’s shelter. In her spare time for three years she facilitated the jail program.

Jail, she said, by isolating her from the sweet-talking man and the life, had enabled her to break loose from prostitution. “I had a distance from him. I had a long enough time for me to be able to make a change,” she said. “This was one of the reasons I wanted a house for women. To give them enough time away from what they were doing to give them the strength not to go back. That’s what jail did for me.”

The other reason for Dignity House was that one of her friends was murdered because she had nowhere to go. Abused by a man who’d forced her into prostitution, she was arrested, jailed and released. He picked her up again. The ritual of burnings, beatings and prostitution began again. She was found in the desert, her throat cut.

Mitchell tells the story with tears in her eyes.

Through others working at the jail, Mitchell met Catholic Social Services’ director, Maureen Webster, who hired her part-time to run a city grant program providing ex-prostitutes with life skills services, a hot line and transportation.

Through Webster “a group of very concerned women in Phoenix” who backed the idea of a “dignity” house came together. Mitchell was taken on full-time at Catholic Social Services. The city agreed to purchase a small house and rehab it. Funds were raised from other sources for essentials.

Eleven ex-prostitutes went through the program last year, said Mitchell, proudly. “Seven are still doing wonderful. Four relapsed into addiction and then back into prostitution. That’s the double-edged sword,” said Mitchell. One of those who relapsed has re-entered a drug treatment program. Once she’s clean, Dignity House -- a nice ranch house in a modest city area that backs onto a park -- will take her back.

“Most rehab programs they go to don’t deal with the prostitution issue, just the drug issue,” said Mitchell. “That’s why we’re so successful.”

Of the seven women, some are still in the city, holding a variety of jobs. “We help place them where they’ll get benefits,” she said. At Dignity House, Mitchell and I talked to one who’d found her dream job. Not high level or high pay, but one she could handle well. An eventual background check -- she’d not mentioned her jail conviction in her application -- and she was fired. She’s still hoping but was crushed.

“They’re battling with a great deal. Women escaping prostitution have difficulty with relationships and a trust problem. They trust too much and they’re too vulnerable,” Mitchell said. Studies show, she said, that ex-prostitutes’ post-traumatic syndrome is more scarring than is the syndrome in Vietnam War veterans.

The women have medical problems, high rates of cervical cancer, hepatitis B and AIDS. And for most, the biggest emotional issue is that they want their children back.

“We don’t take women with their children at Dignity House,” she said. “When clean and sober, they want the children with them. We figure if she gets the child too fast and she relapses, the child’s left out again. That’s not fair to the child. This woman’s made decisions -- unconscious choices, maybe but she’s still responsible for those decisions. Part of this is getting herself good and healthy before she gets them back. We’ve got one woman who has eight children. One by one she’s starting to get them back.”

Dignity House has interdenominational support. So did a one-time city-funded Dignity diversion program providing 94 women and six men with the chance to quit the life. Seventy-nine percent finished the program; many made it and are now holding jobs.

A form of slavery

Tourist-heavy Phoenix is a big town for prostitution. Police arrest 100 to 120 people a month, and that’s just the tip of it,” said Mitchell.

“Legalizing is not the way to go,” said Mitchell, firmly. “That’s a form of slavery. In Nevada they have to have health cards. They go to the doctor once a week. They’re not allowed to have a car, not allowed to drive in city limits. They’re paraded down the street, walk together to the doctors’, everybody looking at them. It’s another way of keeping them down. Legalizing it is isolating them again. We don’t need to be telling them they’re different -- they’ve been told for too long. We need to say, ‘What can we do to help.’ ”

She tells of one Phoenix cop who helped, put himself on the line for a young girl he was about to arrest for prostitution. She told him, “What I did is not who I am. I need help. I want out.”

Said Mitchell, “This tall, lanky cop said he’d get her help if she’d meet him the following day. He let her go. The next day she didn’t show and he took a lot of guff from the other officers. But she turned up the day after that with enough money to get back home. And he saw her safely out of town.”

Mitchell helps others. Who, or what, helps Mitchell?

Strong family support, a deep faith life. A personal dignity that overrides her past even though she does not -- as she well could -- hide it. Surely her difficult public declaration of her past, made on behalf of others, is itself a form of sanctity.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999