New nonprofit seeks treatment for victims of prostitution, drugs (T&G 4/22/2017)

WORCESTER – 36-year-old Nicole M. Bell looks every inch the professional, hair neatly pulled back, a smart blouse and black skirt over sensible shoes. Ms. Bell indeed has become a leader in the city’s nonprofit realm, founding Living In Freedom Together, or LIFT, a resource and advocacy center for women who have been commercially sexually exploited. A center for women like herself.

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, but it’s not one that the overwhelming majority of women enter voluntarily. The average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14, younger than the age of consent to have sex, according to LIFT. Upward of 95 percent of those in prostitution were sexually assaulted as children. And it’s hard to get out of.

“Once you’ve been involved in sexual violence, it’s almost like dissociating,” Ms. Bell said. “You need drugs, so you get in a car. Then you need drugs to forget what you just did.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the women have addictions besides post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Matilde Castiel, Worcester’s commissioner of Health and Human Services, who has been working with LIFT to advocate for services.

“This is a population that has not been looked at,” she continued. “How do we get them treatment?”

Ms. Bell, a survivor of trafficking who was on the streets for a decade, has been in long-term recovery from prostitution and drugs for more than three years.

Before that, she had many attempts at treatment, and many arrests, since she arrived in Worcester for addiction treatment from her hometown south of Boston. She started living in the PIP shelter, which she described as “not a safe place for women,” and eventually was sleeping in doorways.

Half the women who are prostituted are homeless, according to Ms. Bell, and one in five is exchanging sex for a place to stay.

Ms. Bell would go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings as part of her treatment, and get exploited further. “I’d share about something about my past and I’d end up getting solicited in the parking lot,” she said.

Until she started going to Everyday Miracles Peer Recovery Support Center, where then-director Athena Haddon encouraged her to participate in the Worcester Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Ms. Bell’s interactions with police largely revolved around getting hauled into jail.

“There was never any services attached to the arrests,” she said. Even with standard recovery treatment, she said, “We’re placing these women in substance-abuse programs and they’re not getting treated for why they’re using.”

While she said her self-worth was gone at that point in her life, being listened to for the first time by police, health professionals and community leaders was empowering.

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