SEATAC, Wash. – Critics of backpage.com have accused the classifieds website of promoting child prostitution. The company has defended its policies but lawmakers in Olympia are considering new requirements for the site. They are also considering more funding for anti-prostitution programs. And where do they plan to get this extra money? From the Johns and pimps themselves. Azusa Uchikura has this profile of a program in SeaTac called the Genesis Project.
Mary isn’t just any volunteer counselor. We’re not using her last name because she doesn’t want people to know her past. Mary can connect with young prostitutes, because she has her own story to tell.
Mary: “I was just a 17-year old girl in SeaTac walking in my shorts to a baby-sitting job and a car full of guys pulled up and they forced me in the car and basically kidnapped me. After that, I was forced into prostitution for many years.”
And by many years, she means 13.
But Mary’s story has a twist. The man who eventually helped her get out of prostitution was a potential John. But it didn’t matter to her. At age 30, she found hope. And it motivated her to get her first real job.
Mary: “It was in San Francisco, actually, and I was a hostess in a restaurant. And the policemen that had arrested me many times walked into the restaurant. And I’m thinking, oh no. My secret’s out, everybody’s going to know my past, basically, my life is over after I had just started a new one. And he came up to me, and he said, ‘Mary, I knew you could do it.’”
Mary now has a stable life in SeaTac. And last year, she jumped at the opportunity to volunteer at the Genesis Project.
It’s in a secret location behind blacked out windows. Inside, there’s a lounge with couches, a warm fireplace, a kitchen, a bedroom for emergency overnight stays, and more. It’s a combination of counseling and education services for girls in prostitution.
Mary: “I know my life would have been totally different if I would have had Genesis Project.”
The program was founded by King County Sheriff’s Deputy Andy Conner. He says the idea came to him many years ago.
Conner: “I worked up and down the highway, and did a number of hundreds of arrests, as a matter of fact, prostitution arrests. Couple of girls that I had arrested maybe a dozen times finally asked me for help. No girls had ever asked me that before.”
Conner says he had a revelation about young girls in prostitution. They’re victims, not criminals.
Conner: “I just wanted to make my arrests and that’s what my job was. It wasn’t until the girls that asked me for help that made me look into their lives and where they came from. And, it wasn’t their choice.”
The Genesis Project works mostly on an on-call basis and relies on volunteers. Since last August, the program has worked with 19 girls, but the center can’t afford to stay open 24/7.
Conner: “The biggest problem is financial. We’re about stretched to the limit where you can stretch a volunteer.”
But the solution to this financial problem began to take shape when Deputy Conner took SeaTac’s state representative on a ride-along. That night, Representative Tina Orwall met a girl who started prostituting as a minor.
Orwall: “She had been a runaway at a very young age, she had numerous arrests and she was 18. You know, and I have a daughter and I think about how young 18 is. Here’s someone who’s had years of trauma and tragedy who really should be thinking about going to college, and she’s on the streets.”
Orwall says the experience was eye-opening. It inspired her to introduce a legislative proposal to increase fines for convicted Johns. Other legislation targets pimps. The money would go to law enforcement and anti-prostitution programs like the Genesis Project. She expects the bill to pass with bipartisan support.
In the meantime, Mary says she will continue her work as a volunteer counselor for young women in prostitution just like she was.
Mary: “Oh, I see little girls. I just want to hold them in my arms I want to clothe them, I want to feed them; I really want to give back. If I can help in any way.”
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network