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Taking the First Step Towards Healing

Summer. The heat outside puts me in mind of summers past, and the many years I spent visiting the Summer Fair at Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF) for Women in Philadelphia. I always went carrying the same supplies: (1) A bunch of brochures on the effects of Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) on women and their need for sexual trauma recovery therapy; and, (2) A photo montage consisting of real mugshots, taken over a two-year span, showing the first eight prostitution arrests for a dozen or so women. The RCF Fair is an opportunity for incarcerated women to meet providers of various social services, and determine where to find the help that they need. The women gravitate from table to table to determine what each provider is offering. The women who came by our table could be in RCF for crimes ranging from murder to disorderly conduct. Most of them were looking for drug treatment providers. When they came by our table, I would explain that we provided help for women victims of commercial sexual exploitation. They looked puzzled, until I said: “Prostitution”. Most of them responded the same way: “Oh, I done a lot of stuff; but I ain’t never done that!” Coming from women in jail, the contempt in their voices, never ceased to surprise and dismay me. That’s when I would pull out my second tool – the photo montage. “Look,” I would say, “That’s the same woman across the page getting arrested over and over. Look at the first mugshot. How old do you think she is?” The result was always the same. Inevitably, contempt would melt into sorrow and compassion: “That’s the same woman?!? In only two years!? But she looks so old and beat up, and she’s so young at her first arrest! She’s just a little girl!!” But satisfying as it was to see contempt morph into compassion, that’s not why I would go to the RCF Fair. I was searching. I was looking for women who were trapped in CSE, who wanted out, and who had lost hope. And I would find them. I could recognize them immediately. As soon as I told one of these women what we had to offer, tears would come to her eyes, she would lean in, and lower her voice. “That’s me,” she would whisper, “Can you help me?” Thanks to the hardworking staff and caring volunteers and donors of Dawn’s Place, I was able to answer: “Yes. We can help you. My name is Mary. What’s yours?” I miss the RCF Fairs. But Dawn’s Place doesn’t. I have been replaced by our far more effective peer specialist, Anne Marie. She knows RCF from the inside and can reach these women at a level that I never could.  I first met Anne Marie at RCF. I told her that there was help and hope for her. And by her sheer determination and hard work, Anne Marie exceeded my wildest hopes. She helps women at Dawn’s Place every day, and she is renowned as a survivor speaker and advocate. Now, at the Summer Fair, Anne Marie searches. Mary DeFusco, Esquire Dawn's Place President of the Board Director of Training, Defender Association of Philadelphia


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