This program keeps prostitutes safe and helps them leave the trade if they want to.

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This program keeps prostitutes safe and helps them leave the trade if they want to.

Prostitution may be known as one of the “oldest professions,” but with the help of law enforcement, communities are responding in new and innovative ways to abate the problem and address the underlying issues confronting prostituted women.  Sacramento-based Community Against Sexual Harm (CASH) was developed through a collaborative approach that included the Sacramento Police Department’s Problem Oriented Policing (POP) team, professors from Sacramento State University, a business association and former prostitutes who were familiar with the ineffective cycle of arrest, incarceration and re-arrest.

“We came together and decided there was another way – a better way to make the community safe,” explained Sergeant Susan Feenstra, former POP Sergeant and co-founder of the organization.  “At the time of our founding, we had become very effective at abating drug houses and street level drug dealing.  Unfortunately, we were not having success with prostitution along a well-known stroll and in the surrounding community.”  Research led the group to S.A.G.E. (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a program that was led by a formerly prostituted woman and drug addict that understood the challenges and needs of individuals involved in sex-work.

This direct service model was appealing to the POP team.  Strategies that had been used by other law enforcement agencies, such as booking clothing and cosmetics or obtaining stay-away orders against chronic problem prostitutes, failed to produce the long term impact the officers were striving for.  Unfortunately, there was no agency in Sacramento offering non-judgmental, direct services that were easily accessible to prostituted women.  So, members of the POP team partnered with an established non-profit to create the program.

“Over my law enforcement career, I met many of the women out on the streets that were homeless or couch surfing.  Most were chemically addicted and were at best just surviving.  Most had children who were in foster care or being raised by family members,” explained Feenstra.  “Enforcement alone can’t address these social needs.  Establishing a non-profit with a strong collaborative culture helped fill in where our earlier efforts failed”.

Addressing the Problem at its Roots

It is well established that prostituted women face physical, mental, and emotional harms.  In “A Predictive Theory of Intentions to Exit Street-Level Prostitution” by Andrea Cimino, these factors are discussed. For example, up to 70 percent of street-level prostituted women experience threats with weapons and are physically or sexually assaulted by clients. Rates of infectious disease are up to 60 times higher for victims, and the homicide rate for women actively engaged in prostitution is higher than any other set of women.  According to “Human Trafficking Into and Within The United States” by Heather Clawson, Nicole Dutch, Amy Solomon and Lisa Godlblatt, survivors of prostitution and trafficking report high rates of dissociative disorders, clinical depression, and PTSD.  Tragically, most women enter prostitution as minors, generally around 14 years of age.  Childhood sexual abuse is closely linked to prostitution, with studies confirming that minors that were sexually abused are 28 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution at some point in their lives than those without a history of abuse.  This fact helps explain why purely punitive approaches to prostitution simply do not work. According to a report submitted to the Department of Justice, health outcomes for both prostituted women and “Johns” suffer, as less than half of prostituted women know their HIV status and up to half may be infected with hepatitis C, according to various national surveys.

Prostitution is also closely linked to substance abuse. However, it is not entirely clear which comes first – addiction or prostitution activity.  It is clear that the pathway between prostitution and substance abuse is widened by the violence, trauma, and shame that prostituted women face.  According to the Police Executive Research Forum, 81 percent of jurisdictions report a rise in drug-related problems across the nation. This leads one to expect that prostitution will remain a high priority issue for communities.

In addition to the individual harms, local businesses and neighborhoods suffer from prolonged exposure to prostitution activity.  The Stockton Boulevard Partnership and Oak Park Business Association estimate at least $3 million in lost revenue per year due to the reluctance of patrons to be exposed to the elements of the sex trade in their area.  Neighborhoods endure the inappropriate disposal of needles, condoms, other paraphernalia and loitering in community spaces.

A Model for Sacramento

With a mission to assist victims of sexual exploitation through survivor-led peer support and harm reduction services, Community Against Sexual Harm operates a Drop In Center in close proximity to the well-known strolls, offering easy access to quality services for prostituted women.  Since inception, more than 500 women have received services from CASH. Success is measured in terms of harm reduction, which incorporates a number of strategies that initially make life safer for women and the community, while widening the road that leads to abstinence from prostitution and drug abuse.  By using a harm reduction model, the conditions that lead women into prostitution and the complexities of this crime can all be addressed. Last year, we made 550 contacts during outreach.  We know that more than 80 percent of women currently on the streets want a different life, but cannot see the path out.  Peer mentors are used because they are able to develop a trusting relationship, have ties to the local community and serve as models for successfully leaving “the life”.  This approach has helped numerous women leave a life of prostitution.  Women have returned to school, obtained a stable source of income, reunified with their children and addressed long-standing mental health issues.  In total, 90 percent of the women who came to CASH last year had a history of incarceration, often related to drug abuse and/or prostitution.  Of participating clients, only 40 percent have current law violations.  With the police department’s cost of each arrest at $793, this innovative approach has been a win-win for all stakeholders.

CASH is now a trusted resource in the community and has slowly shifted the perspective that many prostituted women have of law enforcement.  Instead of being seen as an adversary, women are able to see more clearly the role of law enforcement in their communities.  As one participant with multiple arrests explains, “CASH should definitely be in every city.  Sometimes women need someone to lean on.  CASH is by far the best place!”

If you are interested in learning more about CASH, our plans for developing a comprehensive diversion program, or training opportunities please visit our website at or call Terri Galvan, Executive Director at 916-856-2900.

Article written by:

Terri Galvan is the Executive Director of Community Against Sexual Harm in Sacramento.  She has a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Southern California and has worked extensively with chronically homeless women in low income communities.

Sergeant Susan Feenstra is a 29 year veteran with the Sacramento Police Department. She was one of the original Problem Oriented Policing program officers. She is a recipient of the Attorney General’s COPPS award, CPOA’s Women Police Officer of the Year, and recipient of two Distinguish Service Awards. Today she supervises the Department’s Peer Support program

Sergeant Cindy Stinson is a 15 year veteran with the Sacramento Police Department.  She helped co-found CASH during her 5.5 years as a problem oriented police officer.