Prostitutes Find Compassion, New Start in Project Dawn Court

Catholic speaker Dawn Eden says city’s program reflects Judeo-Christian teaching “that people can change, people can grow.”

Dawn Eden (third from left) with Project Dawn Court staff and associates.
Dawn Eden (third from left) with Project Dawn Court staff and associates. (photo: Project Dawn Court)

PHILADELPHIA  —  A Philadelphia treatment court has received praise for offering hope and healing to women seeking to turn around their lives after being charged with repeat prostitution offenses.

“I think it’s a tremendously helpful approach,” author and speaker Dawn Eden said. “When I heard the graduates give their stories, stories of healing and hope, I really felt the presence of God in the room.”

Eden gave the July 9 commencement speech to the women graduating from Project Dawn Court, an initiative run by the City of Philadelphia to help women with repeat prostitution offenses. The program is modeled on the highly successful Philadelphia Treatment Court, founded in 1997 to help reduce drug crimes.

“The idea behind treatment courts is that there are certain offenders that are known in the criminal justice system for being ‘‘revolving-door offenders,’’” Eden said.

She noted that the goal of Project Dawn Court is to reduce repeat offenses “by enabling people who are willing to be treated to go through a treatment program that’s individually tailored to their needs.”

The women involved in the treatment court receive counseling for past sexual abuse as well as drug or alcohol addictions as needed. They check in with the judge who is monitoring their progress every month or so. The participants who stay clean for one year graduate from the program. If they stay clean for another year, they will have the opportunity to get their prostitution convictions expunged.

Eden, who flew to Philadelphia to give the speech, said she was very excited to speak with the graduates.

“I could relate a lot of it to my own experiences as a victim of childhood sexual abuse,” she said.

Eden explained that “nearly all of prostituted women have suffered childhood sexual abuse.” She added that many who were abused became homeless, and turned to prostitution and drugs when they were already on the streets.

“There’s this misconception that prostitutes who are drug addicts became addicted to drugs first, and then took to prostitution in order to feed their habit,” Eden said. But the drug addiction, she said, often follows their initial sexual exploitation.

“And then this pimp, after abusing and prostituting them, got them addicted to drugs so that they would become even more dependent upon the pimp, and not get away,” she said.

Eden made clear that although these women are responsible for their actions, they have continually been victimized, and need compassion more than another jail sentence.

Eden shared her own experiences with the women of Project Dawn Court, and told them that she had to learn her own value as a human being “does not depend on what I do,” but that her value as both a human being and a woman, “comes from being made in the image and likeness of God.”

She also told the women that “the worst thing that they can do is not to fall or relapse,” but to “fall or relapse and refuse to seek help.”

Eden said the most successful stories in the program were not the women who made it through without a relapse, but the ones who did relapse and were honest.

“The graduate’s prognosis is better, not worse, if they have experienced a relapse in the court, and taken advantage of the resources of the court in order to get back up and continue with the program,” she said.

Eden said that while the Project Dawn Court is not a religious institution, the program does reflect “this heritage of Judaism and Christianity that says that people can change, people can grow.”

Eden finished her speech by telling the graduates that “the key to healing is not to forget your past, but to find moments in your past when someone did something kind for you ... when someone protected you, smiled at you, performed an act of love for you without expecting anything in return.”

She encouraged them to find those good memories in their lives, and to build their identity on those, “because your identity is as a beautiful and beloved daughter of God.”