Program targets sex trade

City fights increase in teen prostitutes

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / January 4, 2009
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In a six-week period late last summer, Chelsea police arrested 32 prostitutes - a high number even for a city where prostitution has threatened the quality of life for years.

"It was alarming we had that many girls in such a small period," said Chelsea Police Captain Keith Houghton.

Of those, Houghton said, the 10 women most frequently arrested have been nabbed a total of 195 times - one of them 40 times alone.

Now police, in a partnership with the youth organization Roca, are hoping to put a wedge in the prostitution revolving door with the Restorative Justice Project, an aggressive alternative sentencing program funded by a two-year $200,000 grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Still in the conceptual stages, the program would be similar to Roca's ex isting efforts with 14- to 24-year-olds involved in gangs or other high-risk street crime, said Susan Ulrich, who is working on the Restorative Justice Project at Roca.

Using a method they call relentless street working, Roca staff approach young gang members or drug dealers, for example, and talk to them frequently about the organization's services and ways to get help.

"They may not believe they need services; they may be quite content being on the streets or being gang-involved. But we tell them they can do something different in the world," Ulrich said. "When young people want to change and when they're tired of doing the same thing over and over, and they're tired of going to jail or being on the street, they think, 'I have to start to do something different.' "

Through that work, Roca inevitably comes in contact with young females involved in crime, and some in prostitution. In existence for 20 years and now serving 650 young people, Roca, which means rock in Spanish, is focusing on creating programs that target each problem they encounter, Ulrich said.

"As an organization, we believe there's an alternative to incarceration," Ulrich said. "The real push for this organization, and our work with the Chelsea Police Department, is how to keep people out of harm's way, working with these women on how to find better paths, full-time jobs, GED programs."

Although Roca also plans to work with the Revere Police Department, Houghton said Revere doesn't appear to have as big a prostitution problem as Chelsea. The Tobin Bridge, he said, makes Chelsea an ideal location for prostitution due to the heavy flow of traffic and its proximity to the airport.

"With the bridge, you come in and get out really quick," Houghton said. "It's kind of the central core of the north part of Greater Boston."

A Massachusetts General Hospital study of Chelsea prostitutes from 2005 through 2007 indicated the average age of a prostitute is 33, but they range in age from 18 to 44, Houghton said. The study found that many also have substance-abuse problems and are often victims or witnesses of crime, he said.

But there's a new layer to Chelsea's prostitution problem, and it may involve females younger than age 18.

"Last summer, we had a string of human trafficking," Houghton said.

Gladys Vega, executive director of social justice organization Chelsea Collaborative, which also deals with immigration matters, said she has seen the evidence of human trafficking at first hand. Vega said she met a 17-year-old Salvadoran girl who, at 16, ran away from her Chelsea home and accused her father and uncle of prostituting her. So bad was the alleged abuse that the girl was asking to be deported, Vega said.

"This is a serious problem in Chelsea," said Vega, who has written a prostitution prevention proposal with a Chelsea Police detective for the collaborative. "Prostitution continues to grow and, in my opinion, has become an organized and sophisticated crime. . . . We know that human traffickers target undocumented women, especially for the adult entertainment areas. There's a rumor around here that they start them as early as 13 years of age."

The Restorative Justice Project has received a lukewarm reception from district court judges and public defenders, who are concerned that the prostitutes may reoffend while in Roca's program, Houghton said.

"We have to get the district attorney involved and public defenders, and that's the hurdle," Houghton said. "Some of these girls are just lost. We don't know if the courts will agree with it, but we're going to try. It's the oldest profession in the world and no one's found a cure for it.

"It's not a victimless crime," he said. "They're being assaulted, involved in theft, preying on the elderly, tying up the health system and hospitals, and it bothers businesses."

Katheleen Conti can be reached at

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