Ex-prostitute helps others battle for a new start
By ARTHUR JONES
The young prostitute in Kathleen Mitchells 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 stigmas gone away? she asked.
At that moment, one of Mitchells 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, youre over it. Its gone away.
Later though, when Mitchell told the story, she admitted, The stigma never goes away for me.
Thats 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 dioceses Dignity (Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself) House.
Nobodys born to the prostitutes life, Mitchell insists. Theyre in because theyre conditioned to it. Catholic schoolgirl Mitchell was 10 when a policeman molested her in her grandmothers home.
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, hes a nice guy. Hes not nearly ready to be married. The priest warned Mitchell, If you insist on doing this, come and see me and Ill give you $50 -- because youre 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 didnt 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.
Id kept saying no, I couldnt 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 didnt think again for another 12 or 13 years.
By that time she was in jail. Shed 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, Theres got to be something for me. The jail had AA and those things, but I wasnt 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 Chicagos Genesis House and Los Angeles Mary Magdalen House. With that information, she and Indes sat on Mitchells 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 womens 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. Thats 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 whod 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. Thats the double-edged sword, said Mitchell. One of those who relapsed has re-entered a drug treatment program. Once shes 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 dont deal with the prostitution issue, just the drug issue, said Mitchell. Thats why were so successful.
Of the seven women, some are still in the city, holding a variety of jobs. We help place them where theyll get benefits, she said. At Dignity House, Mitchell and I talked to one whod found her dream job. Not high level or high pay, but one she could handle well. An eventual background check -- shed not mentioned her jail conviction in her application -- and she was fired. Shes still hoping but was crushed.
Theyre battling with a great deal. Women escaping prostitution have difficulty with relationships and a trust problem. They trust too much and theyre 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 dont 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 childs left out again. Thats not fair to the child. This womans made decisions -- unconscious choices, maybe but shes still responsible for those decisions. Part of this is getting herself good and healthy before she gets them back. Weve got one woman who has eight children. One by one shes 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 thats just the tip of it, said Mitchell.
Legalizing is not the way to go, said Mitchell, firmly. Thats a form of slavery. In Nevada they have to have health cards. They go to the doctor once a week. Theyre not allowed to have a car, not allowed to drive in city limits. Theyre paraded down the street, walk together to the doctors, everybody looking at them. Its another way of keeping them down. Legalizing it is isolating them again. We dont need to be telling them theyre different -- theyve 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 hed get her help if shed meet him the following day. He let her go. The next day she didnt 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