Women Helping Women

08.28.134:45 AM ET

Former Sex Workers Help Other Women Escape ‘the Life’

An innovative program run out of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office uses the expertise of former sex workers to help prostitutes turn their lives around and puts the emphasis on targeting the johns.

Fourteen years ago, when Marian Hatcher was 38 years old, she went missing. “I had a seemingly really cool life,” she remembers now. Hatcher had already spent 17 years in the corporate world, working her way up to a job as account manager at a major dialysis provider and overseeing 25 employees. She had a degree in finance, a nice house in a good neighborhood of Chicago, and five children. But she had gotten involved with “a really good-looking gang member,” who violently abused her and threatened her family. Sinking into depression, Hatcher turned to crack cocaine. She was arrested for delivering drugs, but broke her parole and spent two years on the run. In the meantime, to support herself and her drug habit, she turned to prostitution.

“I’d lost myself,” Hatcher remembers. "There was nothing I could do to find my way out without intervention."

Soon, she was back behind bars. While Hatcher served four months in jail, her education and background became a notably useful skill set. After being released, she was hired on by the Illinois Cook County Sheriff’s Women’s Justice Programs, the same program she had graduated from, a program she credits with saving her life.

In the nine years since she turned her life around, Hatcher has risen through the ranks to the position of special-projects assistant and helped Cook County’s unique program grow into a nationwide model that uses the insight of former sex workers to seek solutions to the sex trade. Across the country, other law-enforcement agencies have been adjusting their strategies for prostitution busts, and signing on to the ideas that sex workers should be treated as victims rather than criminals and that the johns should be held responsible for buying sex. And increasingly they are relying on the expertise of women who once made up the sex-trade supply chain.

Two years ago Hatcher signed on as coordinator of Sheriff Tom Dart's National Day of Johns Arrests, which has since flourished in partnership with anti-trafficking advocacy group Demand Abolition. From Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office are pushing the campaign to eradicate the demand for prostitution and help rehabilitate prostitutes rather than punish them. With Demand Abolition estimating that sex sellers are between twice and 10 times as likely to be arrested than buyers, law-enforcement agencies from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City to Minneapolis are jumping on board with the basic economic principle of supply and demand. Applied to the sex trade, it means that nipping trafficking and prostitution in the bud can be done by targeting the sex-seeking customers.

The relative ease of finding more women to replenish the supply makes work harder for those struggling to taper demand. Demand Abolition Director Lina Nealon calls the Internet “the new track,” and says, “The ease with which buyers and pimps and traffickers can use the Internet to buy a human being is as easy as buying a couch. You’re not in a car driving around a part of town risking arrest.” But research has shown buyers of sex are fairly easily influenced by the threat of being caught, because many have a much more to lose than the pimps and prostitutes. An in-house survey by the group found that men who already buy sex would be deterred as much by entering a sex-offender registry as they would by having a letter sent to their families. Law enforcement is testing punishments, from thousands of dollars in fines, public shaming, car impoundment, criminal charges, and educational “john schools.”

“We want to bring attention to eradicate demand or put a huge dent in it,” Hatcher says. “If there’s nothing to manage, [the pimps] will have to find another business.”

So far in the campaign, a total of 1,473 johns in have been hauled in by 36 participating jurisdictions over the course of six cross-country stings.

Second in population only to Los Angeles County, Cook County boasts one of the strictest prostitution policies in the nation, which allows a person to be charged with a felony prostitution after one prior related conviction (a law critics are currently advocating to remove). But the Cook County Sherriff’s Office is working to change the status quo while targeting the ever-controversial sex industry. In 2008 it launched the Human Trafficking Response Team, which brought together mental-health workers, law enforcement, and three former sex workers: Lisa Cunningham, Brenda Myers-Powell, and Hatcher.

During the arrest, or once women are brought in off the streets, they’re given a face-to-face with members of the response team, including one of three women who were once literally in their place. These survivors help instruct how each case is handled, whether the women are placed in therapeutic housing, given an intervention, and whether her family needs care. A shared background allows Hatcher and her associates to glean more critical information from the women than an officer could.

“We’ve been through some things that bring an immediate understanding and certain level of trust, much more so than looking in the face of law enforcement that brought them in handcuffs,” Hatcher says. Most police “can’t say they've ever been beaten or raped, but I can.” The program was the subject of a 2011 documentary on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

“I hope to see movement where survivors are in police departments and policy-making decisions, not just [on] panels telling stories,” says Demand Abolition’s Nealon. So far, the Cook County Sherriff’s Office is thought to be the only agency in the country currently utilizing former sex workers as preventative law enforcement staffers. She notes the unique viewpoint that survivors possess, which can contribute to developing combative and preventative measures within law enforcement. “They have insight nobody else has into psychological and physical effects in the industry—they literally have been a product sold by criminal enterprises.”

After building a training curriculum for the human-trafficking task force, Hatcher has been in high demand by law-enforcement agencies across the country. So the victim-centric model built by Cook County has hit the road. Just last week Hatcher made stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado.

Earlier this year, Cunningham and Myers-Powell traveled to Wisconsin to train 500 law-enforcement officials, including the state’s two U.S. attorneys’ offices, in their task-force strategy. The women’s background “gave the presentation credibility immediately,” and they received soaring ratings by participants, says Tracy Johnson, an assistant U.S. attorney for the state’s Eastern District who had initially invited them to come. Johnson attests that participants have already asked for more training. In Wisconsin, there’s only one federally backed NGO that addresses human trafficking needs, and in 2012 the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 124 tips for the state.

In Cook County, the program continues to attract other rehabilitated sex workers who return to lend support as volunteers. “It’s a natural progression for women to come back, because they feel safe with us,” Hatcher says. But if former sex workers are initially hesitant about collaborating with law enforcement, the feeling can run both ways. “You have to look at culture we’re in,” Nealon says. “People see women in prostitution as criminals, so you’re basically encouraging law enforcement to employ those they see as criminals within justice system. It’s shifting the mindset about who individuals purchased are and where they’re coming from."

When Kathryn Griffin Grinan first started building her rehabilitation program at Harris County jail, she was branded with a few unsavory nicknames. Law-enforcement agents called her “whore coordinator,” and “Queen Save-a-Ho,” she remembers. “Everybody had jokes until [the program] started working.”

Grinan, now 53, had been to rehab so many times (21, to be exact), she jokes she has “a doctorate degree in rehabology.” Now, the boisterous, Mississippi-raised reformer runs We’ve Been There Done That, a rehabilitation program serving sex workers both in and out of the Houston prison system.

This year Houston got on board with the Cook County Sherriff's Office for the National Day of Johns Arrests, but has not participated in the operation yet. While Grinan didn’t directly participate in the effort, she’s a big supporter of the concept.

“I’m a big fan of johns getting arrested, but I’m a bigger fan of johns getting rehabilitated,” Grinan says. “Will you ever stop the demand for sex? I doubt it. At least we can stop one piece at a time.” She’s working on her part: helping women recover from and stay out of the life of vice that she spent two decades in.

Grinan traces her entry into drugs and prostitution back to age 14, when she began dating a professional football player twice her age. In the coming decades, she had to work to maintain “a monster” $30,000 monthly drug habit, and, by her final arrest, had already been hauled to court for prostitution five times. “Before you know it, you’re caught in it like a vacuum,” she says. “Being run over, living in abandoned houses, having my ear cut off—you’d think that’d be rock bottom, but rock bottom was that last arrest.”

A decade ago, facing 35 years in prison for prostitution and the crack pipe hidden in her bra, Grinan was one of the first guinea pigs for the region’s drug court. After completing the program and entering outpatient treatment, she began working as outreach coordinator for the city, building a program that would keep former prostitutes off the streets. The sheriff took note and began sending her cases. Not one, Grinan says, returned to prostitution. In fall of 2012, her program was integrated into the jail, and today four staffers treat 225 people—including 57 men and 27 underage girls—who are either sentenced to her program or seek it out.

“I’m like Colonix; I’m like reality therapy,” Grinan says. “I go in and clean out all.” She cites her 21 failed rehab attempts as the foundation for how not to treat her patients. “All the years I tried to get out of substance abuse, nobody would allow me to talk about prostitution or molestation, being tied up or beat up or dragged off,” she says of the single-sighted treatment she received.

“I know you were a mess, so if you can do this, I know I can,” the women tell her. Grinan is open about her past, showing them her mugshots so they can compare her old, drug-addled self to the new.

“I have a badge and key and a program inside the very walls I used to live in,” Grinan says. “Now tell me that’s not a miracle.”