Prostitution research takes to the streets

August 25, 2009

Dallas prostitutes are getting a chance to change their lives, thanks to a collaboration among the  Dallas Police Department, Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, Dallas County Commissioner’s Office, courts, Dallas County Health Department, Adult Probation Department, Parkland Hospital and Homeward Bound which serves as the lead for more than 40 social service and faith-based organizations.  The program offers prostitutes a comprehensive, multi-step, in-patient and out-patient treatment program as an alternative to further victimization and continued involvement in the criminal justice system.  The University of North Texas Health Science Center evaluates data from the program in analyzing health trends and indicators in the prostitution community, which could lead to intervention and treatment.

Initiated in 2007, the Prostitute Diversion Initiative (PDI) targets prostitutes in a monthly sting operation at Dallas-area truck stops.  But the goal isn’t to jail the offenders.  Instead, they can avoid arrest, jail time and endangering public health through their risky behavior as part of an intervention by local law enforcement and community health services. 

Martha Felini, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth School of Public Health, has found preliminary results very encouraging.  "In this hard-to-reach population of truck stop prostitutes who have the highest risks of experiencing violent death compared to other population subgroups, the potential of this program to save lives is tremendous," Felini said. "We hope that early intervention will get prostitutes off the streets and improve public health in Dallas, as well as the hometowns of itinerant truckers throughout the country." 

Background

In October 2007, the Dallas Police Department launched a program to treat prostitutes as victims, rather than criminals, bringing resources and services from a large mix of organizations onto the streets where the prostitutes work.  Recognizing that violence and substance abuse are commonly associated with prostitution, criminal justice systems, social services and public health providers were included in the project that offers prostitutes alternatives to arrest and incarceration.

Results

Since its inception in October 2007, the PDI has contacted 351 prostitutes in Dallas.  The average PDI participant is African American (74 percent), female (95 percent) and 37 years old (ranged from 18-63).  Half reported completing at least a high school education.  Of prostitutes contacted, 68 percent were caregivers with at least one mental health condition. The majority were eligible for immediate treatment services. 

  • Within its first year, nine of the 10 participants completing treatment remained off the streets and on the road to recovery. Today, 19 are on track to leave prostitution.
  • Preliminary evaluation suggests that the prostitutes abuse drugs (approximately 95 percent) for self-medication to address multiple mental health conditions and cope with risky behaviors.

The program appears to be working.  Findings show that the success of community organizations and public health agencies partnering with law enforcement agencies brings needed resources directly to the streets where a vulnerable population often experiences barriers to care. 

The PDI will continue its monthly sting operations around the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, and other cities are considering similar operations.  For more information, go to http://www.pdinewlife.org/.

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