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Supporting Victims of Sex Trafficking in Portland

Success Spotlight
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New Options for Women connects women with needed services to escape 'the game.'

From left to right: New Options for Women (NOW) Staff Members Robin Miller, Kendra Harding, and Kelly Clark. Photo Courtesy Kendra Harding.
From left to right: New Options for Women (NOW) Staff Members Robin Miller, Kendra Harding, and Kelly Clark. Photo Courtesy Kendra Harding.

For Robin Miller, the job as case manager at the New Options for Women (NOW) Program in Portland, Oregon, is a rewarding one as she helps women escape the commercial sex trade industry.

But there's also a fair share of heartbreak and tears involved.

After all, Miller herself is a survivor of the commercial sex industry, leaving "the game," as it's called, in 1999.

"For me, not to give back what I know, what helped me, would be a crime," said Miller, who has been with NOW since May 2015. "I just want to be able to pour into them what I know works and offer them the resources that helped me."

Miller is one of four women on staff at the NOW program, which supports women who have experienced sexual exploitation while involved in the sex industry.

NOW is the only program of its kind in Oregon and the Bureau of Justice Assistance has long been a supporter of its work.

Since its founding in 2008, the Lifeworks Northwest NOW Program has been largely funded through BJA's Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. Annually, NOW receives between $100,000 and $110,000 in JAG funding.

Prostitution in Portland

For decades, 82nd Avenue has been a place where people have engaged in prostitution and sex trafficking in Portland. The major north-south highway runs along the entirety of the east side of the city.

Over the years, the game in Portland has changed from street level prostitution to online ads, but sex trafficking remains a "fair-sized" issue, according to Sgt. Norm Staples, supervisor of the Portland Police Bureau's Sex Trafficking Unit.

On a daily basis, there are anywhere from 125 to 150 escort services ads placed on Backpage.com, a website used for prostitution. From January 1 through early December 2016, police arrested, investigated, or rescued 50 women in prostitution cases, Staples said.

In recent years, the city has moved toward enacting policies that are intended to connect women with needed resources to escape the game instead of punishing them.

That's where the NOW Program comes in.

NOW partners with Portland's Sex Trafficking Unit to provide women with the opportunity to access the mental health and advocacy support they need. The program is unique in that law enforcement stays involved after referring a woman to the program. They essentially serve as probation officers for the women in an effort to provide them with every available resource.

Staples said the sex trafficking unit is in contact with NOW staff on an almost daily basis receiving updates on the women they've referred to the program.

"If we're not talking or brainstorming different ways to help these people, then we're not really doing our jobs," he said.

Staples also points out that helping just one woman advance through the program and escape the life has an immense trickledown effect on the issue of prostitution along 82nd Avenue and throughout Portland.

"And then when these women stay associated with the [NOW] program, and they help assist other women get out of the program, that's even more helpful and it gives more credibility to the program and that's what we're trying to do," he said.

Treating Addictions

Staff members at NOW work with women to reduce the likelihood that they relapse into the lifestyle that traditionally surrounds prostitution. Every woman who enters the program, either voluntarily or by referral, participates in a mental health assessment, a drug and alcohol assessment, and a needs assessment completed by staff members.

Prior to the formation of the NOW Program in 2008, women involved in sex trafficking in Portland had no other options.

"....this is the most wounded population I've ever worked with..." -Kelly Clark, Chemical Dependency Counselor

According to Kelly Clark, the Chemical Dependency Counselor at NOW, many of the women that come to the NOW Program have a variety of addictions, including meth, heroin, opiates, crack, marijuana, and alcoholism.

For women looking to leave the lifestyle, their struggle to do so is compounded by their addiction, which is another barrier to their ability to function and become independent from sex work.

Clark has worked in addictions counseling for more than 20 years, supporting both youth and adults.

"I thought I had heard it all," she said of her previous experience before joining NOW. "Being with the NOW Program since 2012, I've discovered that this is the most wounded population I've ever worked with in my career."

The victimization for women in the program is chronic as they've become desensitized to using their bodies to survive and meet their needs, she added.

Most, if not all, of NOW's clients are survivors of childhood sexual abuse or molestation, which includes human trafficking. This severe trauma does not go away when women turn 18.

Supporting Victims

During the last reporting quarter for NOW—from July 1 to September 30—three women in the program were able to secure safe and sober housing for themselves and their children. As housing continues to be a barrier for women leaving the sex industry, the NOW Program sees this as a huge success and a life changing impact on the women in the program.

At any time, there are anywhere from 34 to 48 women enrolled at NOW, according to Program Coordinator Kendra Harding.

About 33 percent of program participants are self-referrals, while the other 67 percent come by way of court mandates or referrals from social services and faith-based associations, Harding said.

On average, women are with the NOW Program for six to nine months as they progress through the program's three phases. Each phase guides them through such tasks as acquiring the proper identification, health insurance, and employment.

But Harding is quick to point out that NOW doesn't force women to 'graduate' from the program. Instead, women may remain with the program as long as they'd like with staff members more concerned that they receive the support they need rather than accomplishing certain tasks needed for graduation.

NOW is currently in the process of launching a new prevention program aimed at keeping women on the right track. Miller will be facilitating a forward focus group for women who have graduated from the program or are in the later phases of the program so they can come back weekly for support and offer continued peer support for each other.

"I think it's going to be a great opportunity for women to do that," Miller said. "I want to see that peer support building because, ultimately, that is how I made it."

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Date Published: January 13, 2017