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Published: Friday, 1/27/2006

Workers needed to find, help prostitutes

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

They met in a church yesterday over soup and sandwiches - social workers, academics, community activists, police, parents, and court personnel.

Their goal: Find prostitutes. Help them.

"We're not asking you to come and sit here," University of Toledo professor Celia Williamson told those three dozen men and women who had gathered. "We're asking you to work."

The meeting at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Collingwood Boulevard was the first of 12 roundtables planned by Ms. Williamson, who has spent years interviewing prostitutes on Toledo's streets and has twice hosted national conferences on prostitution.

Now she wants to enlist the help of others in the Toledo area and beyond in reaching out to those girls and women who want to move out of the sex trade for good.

Federal indictments last month of several Toledo men suspected of recruiting girls as young as 12 into the sex trade have added a sense of urgency to Ms. Williamson's effort.

Several of those who gathered yesterday said they were motivated in part by The Blade's series "Lost Youth: Teenage Sex Trade," which reported the brutality and violence that federal investigators said the "loose confederacy" of pimps used to control women and girls.

Among those who gathered yesterday was a woman with a grandchild whose father was a pimp.

Another woman was a former prostitute.

Now an adult, she told The Blade that she was 12 when she began working as a prostitute. She said she was attending the meeting to offer any insight she could provide to help those working on the effort.

After the meeting, she wept quietly.

Ms. Williamson warned during the meeting that passion and emotion aside, it won't be easy to help young girls or adults escape "the game."

Among the biggest obstacles, she told the group, is identifying prostitutes. That means, for example, emergency room personnel who see battered girls and women need to pry with the right questions rather than rely on a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Still, Ms. Williamson has been able to gather preliminary data by interviewing 114 Toledo prostitutes. Among the conclusions:

●About half of the prostitutes Ms. Williamson interviewed said they began "in the life" when they were 14 or 15 years old.

●North Toledo continues to attract customers, or "johns," in part because there is easy access to I-75, I-280, and more recently, the Buckeye Expressway. The neighborhood's diverse population means johns feel it is easier to blend in. Other Toledo area prostitutes work in some hotels, truck stops, drug houses, and escort services.

●The bulk of commercial sex in Toledo involves 15-minute sex acts for as little as $20, although pimps or prostitutes may demand much more.

●Contrary to conventional belief, most professional pimps do not allow their prostitutes to do drugs because they realize that any money collected by the prostitutes could end up in the hands of the "dope boy" rather than the pimp.

Deb Hodges, who heads probation services at Lucas County Juvenile Court, told the group court personnel had been told by some girls that they were sold into the sex trade by families.

Ms. Williamson affirmed that such arrangements occur, citing a situation where a medical professional paid one local family for their 14-year-old girl.

"He'd come by and pay the light bill and rent for the pleasure of using the girl," she said.

But as much as reaching out to talk with the prostitutes or child victims, the group needs to establish prevention programs - safety nets that will help shield vulnerable girls from pimps or other recruiters, said David Kontur, director of the Lucas County Family Council.

"I'm looking at prevention too. How do we keep [young women] from getting to that point?" he asked.

Mr. Kontur told The Blade later that he was enthusiastic about the turnout for the first roundtable discussion.

He said that news of the federal investigation "put the issue in front of the community."

"I think that the real challenge is going to be in keeping the momentum," Mr. Kontur said.

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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