Three women speak out against child prostitution in Tucson
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - An effort is taking place to get prostitutes off Tucson streets.
Councilman Steve Kozachik's office teamed up with Tucson Police, the U.S Attorney's Office, and local counseling agencies to create Project Raise, a program that offers diversion to prostitutes who are first time offenders, or have no felonies on their record.
Local and federal agents are especially concerned about child prostitution. Lt. James Scott with the Special Investigations Division of the Tucson Police Department says they are coming across prostitutes who are just teenagers.
"it's a little more covert, a little harder to track down and find, but they're out there. We have had some cases involving child prostitution, minors involved in sex acts for pay," said Lt. Scott.
Tucson News Now has learned that the U.S. Attorney's office has partnered up with local law enforcement agencies to form a working group right here in Tucson, to target human trafficking.
During Project RAISE, Tucson police scoured the streets and the web, soliciting prostitutes. Those who qualified were brought to a local Church. There they were arraigned by a judge and offered diversion. Diversion means no jail time or charges, if they complete a special program. In this case it means enrolling in counseling and taking classes, aimed at getting them off the street and reforming their lives.
Holly Darwin, Senior Director of Specialized Services with CODAC Behavioral Health Services said many of the girls were caught up in a vicious cycle.
"The needs of these women are so much more than what can be done on a regular out-patient basis. Almost always there is trauma, almost always there is addiction," said Darwin.
The prostitutes brought into the program also had a chance to work with advocates, women who had once been victims themselves. We spoke to three advocates. All tell Tucson News Now, they were victims of child prostitution. One was also a victim of sex trafficking.
23-year old Sarah Hayden who is now an advocate with Teen Challenge, a faith based program, said she was addicted to meth and heroin.
A boyfriend encouraged her to advertise herself on websites. They put up some racy pictures on websites like Craigslist and Backpages, and she was in business. Hayden said she was only 16-years old at the time.
"I was so alone in the world. I had nobody. It was almost like this crazy world. It was fast and I was young, and it was money. Later on it got scary as we got more involved with drugs. Things got more serious. There were guns, there were times I was raped," said Hayden.
Hayden said she was arrested at least 13 times as a teenager. She finally broke free from the world of prostitution after getting sentenced to take part in the Teen Challenge program.
For Brandy Viegas, the entry into the world of prostitution happened at the age of 13. Viegas said she was raped and ran away from home. She moved in with five men who did not speak English. They got her hooked on drugs.
"It was crazy. I was so very addicted. They took me to their connection's house and I slept with them, and we all got high. I would look at myself in the mirror, I didn't liked what I saw. I was truly a baby and very immature. In my mind I definitely didn't belong where I was," said Viegas.
She eventually ventured out on the street on her own and was picked up by a man in a pick up truck.
A few minutes later, Viegas said police saved her life, when they pulled over the man and arrested him. Turned out they had been watching him, as he was a wanted serial rapist.
Beth Jacob's story is one of sex trafficking. Jacob's said she was picked up by some men while she was a 15-year old, waiting at a bus stop. They invited her to a party.
Once in the car, the men offered Jacobs a drink. She said she passed out and woke up in a hotel room. The men told her they were pimps and she was now their sex slave.
"I was afraid. They would hurt me, I wanted to leave but I didn't know how. They kept me in a room and took all my clothes. I couldn't leave naked," said Jacobs.
She was forced to sell her body on the streets, and solicit men at fancy hotels.
"we would look in books to see where the conferences were, to know where the money was. They would bring us to those hotels."
They moved from city to city. She attempted to run away but was caught. She was finally able to escape at the age of 22.
While all three women are survivors, they want other women in the same shoes to know, there is hope. All are scarred by the events from their teen years. Rebuilding their lives has not been easy.
"I have 22 prostitution charges that have affected me from 30 years ago. They are affecting my ability for employment, to get an apartment," said Jacobs.
The counselors, agencies, and city officials working with Project Raise hoped to help women make that transition.
Councilman Steve Kozachik said he was drawn to the cause by hearing about the helpless victims, and that it could be anyone's child. They started Project Raise last year, modeled after a similar project in Phoenix.
Staff with Kozachik's office said a total of 31 people were detained on the night of Project Raise, 21 were arrested, and the city has offered diversion to 15 prostitutes since last year.
To get more information about Project Raise or to get involved, you can contact the Ward 6 office at (520) 791-4601 or visit their website http://cms3.tucsonaz.gov/wardsix