WORCESTER, Mass. —It’s just past noon in Worcester, and a familiar scene is about to play out. A young woman, her clothes dirty, walks Main Street for hours, glancing at passing cars, until one pulls over.
She gets in, looks like she’s giving the male driver directions, and they head to a cemetery. As our camera rolls, a sex act occurs in the man’s car. Advertisement
It’s scenes like this that Audra Doody is working to stop as a case worker for LIFT Worcester, an advocacy group working to end prostitution and help the women who have been trafficked.
“I am basically an advocate for the woman,” she tells 5 Investigates’ Mike Beaudet as they drive to a halfway house, where she’s set to pick up a woman with a history of prostitution who just got out of jail.
“Today we’re getting her ID because she’s going to be able to start a job search soon. A lot of these girls come to the halfway house, they don’t have anything. They have no ID, no birth certificate, no nothing. So it’s like a process to get everything,” Doody said..
Doody is herself a survivor of human trafficking.
“I met this manager at the department store and she asked me if I wanted to make a little more money. And of course I was like, yeah, sure, what do I have to do? And this woman, she’s like, ‘Oh, you just go on these dates with guys. It’s nothing,'” she said.
“I was only 17 and I was kind of naive and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into until I walked into that guy’s apartment and realize what I was there for,” she said.
“You must have a lot of credibility with them?” Beaudet asked.
“Yeah, of course,” she said. “Building trust with them is one thing because if they don’t know who you are, it’s hard for people to open up about certain things.”
LIFT Worcester also runs a drop-in center where at-risk women can find clothes, shoes and access to services. Health care will soon be offered here, too.
5 Investigates was able to watch when LIFT Worcester founder and CEO Nikki Bell trained health care providers at UMassMemorial Community Healthlink, which recently got a grant to provide health care services to prostituted women at LIFT and other places in the community.
She showed videos of survivors telling their stories and explained the mindset of how women come to be trafficked and exploited.
“Helping them to understand that there should have been systems and protections in place for them that maybe weren’t there and connecting those dots so that shame and blame can be lifted from themselves,” she told the group.
LIFT Worcester and other advocacy groups work to help women exit prostitution. But there’s also growing attention being paid to reducing the demand side of the prostitution equation: the men whose money is fueling the whole business.
Cambridge police Detective Sgt. Louis Cherubino, who supervises the department’s Special Investigations Unit, is calling on the Legislature to toughen the penalties for men who buy sex, saying a fine is essentially a slap on the wrist.
“I don’t think that’s enough. I think to really get out the message to this demand piece, I think we have to have a little more teeth to the law,” he said.
Another piece of legislation, backed by state Attorney General Maura Healey, would impose tighter regulations on massage parlors by eliminating the “body works loophole,” so-called because spas can operate by offering body works instead of massages, a move that eliminates a layer of regulation.
Boosting the penalties for the crime is one idea. Persuading men they shouldn’t be exploiting women for sex is another.
It’s an endeavor that Maureen Casey of Spectrum Health Systems undertakes on a regular basis. She’s an instructor of the Community Approach to Reduce Demand, or CARD, Program. Some call it “John School.”
“It’s somebody’s sister, it’s somebody’s mother, it’s somebody’s aunt,” she said. “Picture what you’re doing to this person that you’re going to exploit, picture that being done to the one that you love.”
Men charged for the first time with soliciting a prostitute can attend the CARD Program and get their charges dismissed if they stay out of trouble after graduating. The four-hour class teaches the men about everything from the impact of human trafficking to sexually transmitted infections.
The men are getting the message based on the evaluations that ask them what was most helpful about the class. “The victimization I hadn’t thought of,” wrote one man.
“The presentation from the survivor opened my eyes more to what these girls are going through,” wrote another.
From 2015 through 2017, 115 people went through the program and nobody has been rearrested, Casey said.
LIFT – or Living in Freedom Together – is a survivor-led organization that offers programming and other services to help exploited women exit commercial sexual exploitation.
Bags of Hope Ministries
Prepares bags with essential personal care items for vulnerable women on the streets or in programs throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
My Life My Choice
Programs offering services to youth including survivor mentorship
A survivor led organization that provides services to survivors of human trafficking.
Garden of Hope
Works to help people especially in the Chinese communities in the New York City region who have been exposed to human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault.
If someone sees an emergency, call 911. To refer information regarding suspicious activity, call your local police department or State Police or the Attorney General’s office at (617) 727-2200.