AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group working to help lead women out of prostitution will make its case to county commissioners Tuesday, in hopes that they’ll continue to fund the program.
Leaders of the Phoenix Court program will help present an evaluation of the program done by the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas.
The Phoenix Court serves as a diversion program for men and women who have been arrested for misdemeanor prostitution and related crimes. By going through the one to two-year program, they can get their record expunged.
“I can’t tell you how good it feels to see when somebody comes in and says we saved their life because they went through the program successfully,” says Judge Mike Denton, who oversees the program. “They can’t escape unless somebody’s willing to stop, hold out a hand, give them that help.”
Denton meets weekly with men and women in the program. In addition to those court visits, participants receive help with housing, drug treatment and undergo intensive counseling.
“They start to learn that it is a different way to live, and they want to,” says Phoenix Court’s case manager and counselor, Tony Frank.
Frank says everyone who comes through the program is there as a result of some type of trauma, usually from their childhood. He says most also struggle with mental illness and substance abuse.
“The prostitution is just a manifestation of the trauma that these people experience from childhood, and the drug use is also a part of that,” Frank says. “It creates a certain lifestyle for them, and after 10, 20, 30 years in that lifestyle, it’s really difficult to transform out of it.”
The key to successfully helping them start a new life, Frank says, is “truly treating them as victims.”
Judge Denton says it’s a strategy that’s not only saving lives, but also taxpayer money.
“It’s not just the cost of a single arrest, but it’s as we look down the road, the county’s going to have to respond over, and over, and over again,” Judge Denton said.
In its first three years, about 20 people have gone through the program. It’s a number Judge Denton says is much larger than it sounds, considering prostitution’s impact on the neighborhoods and families attached to it.
“When you help one, you’re really helping a lot,” he said.
Frank says he and the rest of the Phoenix Court program’s team hope to expand its reach, but that would take more funding.
The program lost its grant when Gov. Greg Abbott cut funding to Travis County over the immigration fight in 2017. Travis County stepped in and agreed to fund the program through the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
For more information on the program, visit TravisCountyTx.gov.