Rowena Mathews, a survivor of sex trafficking and staff member at Breaking Free in St. Paul, leads people in the singing of “This Little Light of Mine,” during Breaking Free’s annual candlelight vigil on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. - Photo by Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service
Moving on from prostitution is riddled with pitfalls
By Amy Dalrymple and Katherine Lymn
Forum News Service
Rowena Mathews threw herself a two-day party when she turned 30 last summer, soaking up every minute of fun at a lakeside barbecue.
Celebrating with family and going out dancing with girlfriends meant more to Mathews than just marking a milestone.
She hadn’t thought she’d live to see 30.
Mathews became a sex trafficking victim as a teenager, pimped out by a mother addicted to drugs and ensnared in prostitution.
That led the Twin Cities woman into a life she now describes as “a whirlwind, like a nasty Category 5 hurricane.” After about a decade of life on the streets, Mathews had lost all hope and wished for death.
“Because it was like there is nothing that this community is gonna do for me. I am nobody. I am just a crackhead prostitute and that’s all I’m ever gonna be. Kill me now; take me, you know? All I’m good for is sex and making money for the next man,” Mathews said.
“I already felt dead, you know, I just felt dead and I was just waiting for it to be official.”
Now two years sober and a graduate of Breaking Free, a St. Paul organization that helps sexually exploited women and girls, Mathews is proud of how far she’s come.
“My 30th birthday was a symbol that life is divine and that I deserve it,” Mathews said.
She treasures the birthday cards she received from co-workers.
“That was special to me, that somebody cared about my life and that I was here.”
Similar to domestic violence
Leaving a life of prostitution, or “squaring up,” as those in the life often call it, is difficult and often takes several attempts.
Mathews tried treatment programs, but none addressed prostitution. That was until three years ago, when she discovered Breaking Free, led by survivors of sex trafficking.
“I think a lot of us women that are in the lifestyle needed that role model to show us that we could get out,” Mathews said.
One of those role models was Joy Friedman, who came to Breaking Free as a client in 2001 and is now the organization’s director of training and outreach.
“Getting out, it’s very hard. Just like domestic violence,” said Friedman, 51, who was trafficked to Minot, N.D., among many other cities in her teens and 20s.
“You’ll go back and forth with different things,” she said. “You may not totally go back to the street, but you may still deal with the individuals in that lifestyle.
“Detaching, it’s a process. Every one is individually based. Depends on where you are, where your tenacity is, your resilience. It depends on where your mindframe is. How much damage is there and how much programming has really happened to you. Some girls will never get out totally.”
Breaking Free offers a 14-week, intensive education group, “Sisters of Survival,” that examines sex trafficking, the impact it has on victims and issues related to addiction and recovery.
Other educational groups focus on building strong families, relapse prevention and life skills.
Breaking Free also provides advocates who meet one on one with clients to address other issues they may also be dealing with, such as poverty, homelessness and drug addiction.
Friedman and others do outreach to women in the life, but sometimes it takes a long time to reach them.
“Some of the girls are so addicted to the lifestyle, the hustle, the abuse, all of that, that they don’t know what to expect on this side,” Friedman said.
Heartland Girls’ Ranch in Benson, Minn. runs a Hearts for Freedom which helps victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. - Photo by Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service
Horses and healing
At the Heartland Girls’ Ranch in Benson, Minn., a focus group for sex trafficking victims helps girls understand the dynamics of what they’ve been through and that it wasn’t their fault.
“Often, it’s not until the fourth, fifth group that they even admit that this guy is not really their boyfriend,” Executive Director CeCe Terlouw said.
The ranch serves girls with mental, emotional and behavioral problems along with girls who are victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation. The southwest Minnesota program has served sex trafficking victims as young as 12.
Some girls take two years or more to fully understand and process what happened to them, Terlouw said.
“They’ve been pretty much brainwashed into how they were thinking.”
A focus of the ranch is the horse program, where girls find healing, build self-esteem and learn a new skill. The ranch emphasizes education and training so girls are less likely to fall back into the hands of traffickers, pimps and johns.
“Girls that have been sex trafficked, they need to understand that they can progress in their education and get opportunities that can help sustain them for life in their own families,” Terlouw said.
Each girl is assigned her own horse so she can form a bond.
“The horses respond to the girls in a way that’s almost magical,” Terlouw said.
Like the girls, some horses come to the ranch from abusive situations. Bridget Kinnell, director of the horse program, recalls one girl who worked with a horse that kept wanting to speed up because he was forced to do that in the past. The girl realized it was like the horse was having a flashback and reverting to old behavior.
“This was exactly her life,” Kinnell said.
In the past, the program has placed trafficking victims with girls who are there for other reasons, but the ranch is adding a new house specifically for trafficking victims.
“Most of our girls that come to the ranch have a lot of trauma,” Terlouw said. “But when you’ve been trafficked, the trauma is at even a different level. There just needs to be a place that needs to be a little quieter, a place that’s set apart to specific needs.”
CeCe Terlouw, executive director of Heartland Girls’ Ranch in Benson, Minn., talks about the success of the Hearts for Freedom program, which helps victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. - Photo by Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service
Safe housing needed
By her count, Windie Lazenko has helped nearly 20 women and girls break free from sexual exploitation in the year since she founded 4her North Dakota in Williston, N.D.
When authorities or service providers refer a possible victim to Lazenko, she focuses on addressing her immediate needs and keeping her safe.
Lazenko is herself a survivor, and she says providing a safe house for victims of sex trafficking is critical, particularly because domestic violence shelters in the Bakken are maxed out.
“Even if I get a call from the FBI or law enforcement or the hospital about a possible trafficking victim, we have nowhere to take her for safety,” Lazenko said. “I’ve been taking the girls home, personally, with me, which is not a good idea.”
Lazenko is seeking donations and grant dollars to build a 30-day safe house in the Bakken.
A 4her North Dakota shelter would not be designed to assist women with mental health issues or severe addiction problems, which are common among sex trafficking victims, she said, so the facility would need to have transportation available to take victims to those services, even if it’s going to a detox center six hours away.
For long-term needs, Lazenko has connected victims from North Dakota with Breaking Free or similar programs, such as GEMS in New York.
At the Family Crisis Shelter in Williston, which focuses primarily on domestic violence, Director Lana Bonnet estimates the shelter has served nine trafficking victims in the past year. In one case, the program spent $2,500 to $3,000 to relocate a victim of sex trafficking, including buying her a train ticket and clothing and wiring her $1,600 so she could get into an apartment.
“She was scared,” Bonnet said. “She just wanted to get out of here.”
Bonnet said she supports the idea of establishing a shelter in the Bakken for sex trafficking victims. While the domestic violence shelter will accommodate victims of sex trafficking, it has been at full occupancy since 2009. The center does not turn away women and children who are in need but works to relocate them or place them in hotel rooms.
In addition to the lack of beds, placing victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence together can create challenges, Bonnet said. Members of her staff believe that one woman who came to the shelter as a domestic violence victim actually was there to recruit other women into prostitution.
Once the shelter got information from authorities about the woman, she was offered relocation to another city.
“I think what happens a lot of times is they are slapped or hit to be bruised so that they can come in and say I’m a victim of domestic violence,” Bonnet said. “I think the pimp is great at doing that.”
In Dickinson, Darianne Johnson suspects they also had a victim of sex trafficking recruiting other residents of the domestic violence shelter, which estimates it has served 12 trafficking victims this year.
“Everything got very strange and then four women all left and went together,” said Johnson, executive director of the program.
Five years ago, Johnson said she would have thought the women found an apartment together. But with the housing shortage in the Oil Patch, that doesn’t happen anymore.
“It really makes me wonder,” Johnson said.
The YWCA of Cass Clay, the largest shelter serving women and girls in North Dakota, has also had cases of women believed to be recruiting other women from the shelter when they’re in a vulnerable state, said Executive Director Erin Prochnow.
The trafficking victims the YWCA has served have more needs than victims of domestic violence or women struggling with homelessness, Prochnow said. Most clients of the YWCA meet with their advocates weekly or twice a week, but victims of sex trafficking meet with their advocates a couple times a day.
“Everything is just more intense as it relates to human trafficking,” she said. “The challenge with mental health is more significant, the challenge with substance abuse issues is more intensive.”
Record of the past
Back in the Twin Cities, survivor Mathews says she wants to be a sunflower, bright and tall and beautiful. But she fears her criminal history, all of which she attributes to her being a sex trafficking victim, will keep her stuck as a dandelion.
“Breaking Free has trained me not to live in my past no more,” she said. “But something in society will always bring me back there, and it kind of brings me under and makes me discouraged.”
She wants to move into different housing, but her criminal history stands in the way.
“A lot of renters around here won’t rent to you if you have prostitution on your record, and it’s sad. It’s hurtful,” Mathews said. “I feel like there’s still a chain wrapped around my neck.”
Mona Livdahl, executive director of the North Dakota Apartment Association, said that landlords have the legal right to cite a criminal record as reason not to rent to someone, but a misdemeanor conviction for prostitution wouldn’t trigger a denial as much as a drug conviction. An applicant’s credit score also tends to be a more important factor, she said.
Mathews, who said she dreams now about traveling to all 50 states and becoming a community leader, also frets that she won’t be able to find work outside of Breaking Free someday.
“This is the only place that would hire me,” she said. “I just don’t see how I can expand like I want to.”
Anti-trafficking advocates, including the organization Polaris, encourage states to adopt laws that would allow sex trafficking victims to have criminal convictions expunged.
If she could prove her criminal behavior grew from her being victimized, Mathews said, she knows she could break free.
“I would be able to be that sunflower.”
If you see potential trafficking or are a victim, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
- Phone: (888) 373-7888
- Email: NHTRC@PolarisProject.org
- Text: "INFO" or "HELP" to BeFree (233733)
Toll-free, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Confidential with interpreters available.