Program helps sex trafficking victims

Tennessee and Shelby County leaders are working to provide resources to men and women who sell sex on the streets of Memphis.

Last week on FOX13, we shared video from a prostitution sting. FOX13’s Kristin Leigh rode along with the Memphis Police Department’s Organized Crime Unit as they arrested women who sold sex to undercover officers.

>> RELATED: FOX13 Investigates: Sex trafficking throughout Memphis

MPD worked with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office in December 2014 to develop the “Lives Worth Saving” program. Women charged with prostitution are given the opportunity to complete a one-day class hosted at a local church. Upon completion, their records would be expunged.

Through the program, Eyleen Farmer and Rachel Haaga work with the District Attorney’s Office to give prostituted people a second chance.

“It feels to me like a real privilege to witness the kind of courage that it takes to do something new with your life,” Farmer said.

MPD told FOX13 many of the people arrested for prostitution struggle with alcohol addiction.

“Lives Worth Saving” connects people with resources that help them break bad habits, but getting women to leave a lifestyle behind is not easy. Haaga and Farmer said prostituted people face a number of barriers.

“It might be a housing component, that they don't have stable housing,” Haaga said. “It might be a job component, that they don't have stable income. It might be an alcohol or drug addiction. It might be just the lies from their family - just constant emotional abuse of saying you're nothing but a hoe.”

Additionally, Haaga told FOX13 the city needs more detox facilities for those struggling with addiction.

“What's happening when's someone's detoxing from some of these drugs is they need a different kind of clinical oversight,” Haaga said. “There's fewer facilities in this city that actually will do that.”

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich told FOX13 there’s a statewide need for drug treatment facilities.

“We certainly need more beds, more resources, more hands and hearts to do that work,” Weirich said. “Often times that arrest and introduction into the criminal justice system is what saves addicts from another arrest, because they get the help they need for their addiction through drug court.”

Weirich said state leaders are aware of the need for more detox facilities, and additional help for addicts may come soon.

“Part of [Governor Bill Haslam’s] public safety action plan that is working its way through the general assembly right now has a component in it where the governor and his administration recognize the great need we have in this state for more treatment facilities,” Weirich said.

Weirich said “Lives Worth Saving” started in December 2014, shortly after the state legislature decriminalized prostitution for juveniles.

“If at 16 a young lady or a young man is considered a victim if they get picked up from prostitution, how can they now all of a sudden be considered a criminal defendant when they turn 18?” Weirich said. “That was really the starting off point for us with the “Lives Worth Saving,” and trying to do more than just run these defendants through the criminal justice system.”

Weirich explained to FOX13 that “Lives Worth Saving” was created to treat prostituted people as victims, rather than criminals.

“We know these people have been victims,” Weirich said. “Nobody stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life working the streets and selling my body. They have been the victims of sexual abuse, of physical abuse, of unspeakable years in their lives.”

According to the District Attorney’s Office, 114 people completed the “Lives Worth Saving” class in 2015. Larry Buser, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said 20 women reached out for services after finishing the class to get completely out of the life of prostitution.

“I have been moved again and again by listening to the stories of survivors who tell these incredible stories,” Farmer said.

Haaga and Farmer told FOX13 it takes strength and support for prostituted people to overcome the barriers that led them to prostitution.

“I think depending where they're coming from for that one person, it might be the addiction that's harder to beat, and for this person it might be the break from their trafficker, their pimp or that lifestyle that's harder to beat,” Haaga said.