It’s an effort that takes time and trust, and sometimes an arrest. But the fruits of the Bradenton Police Department’s labor and commitment to helping sex trafficking victims are starting to show.
For the first time, a woman from Manatee County has agreed with the court to avoid jail time and seek help releasing the chains of exploitation.
The police department has been working fpr several months with Selah Freedom, a statewide organization using education and outreach to help those who have been stuck in sex trafficking or prostitution.
Sometimes, women who have been selling their bodies for food, money or drugs meet Selah Freedom representatives during outreach conversations on the street. Other times, it’s when a crime is committed.
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Since December, when they partnered with Selah, Bradenton police have conducted two prostitution stings. They hope the most recent one will have a lasting effect for at least one woman: a 23-year-old who was arrested for offering a $300 massage that she wasn’t licensed to give — a common cover for prostitution.
When she was taken into custody, a Selah representative was there. So was Detective Yolanda Cox.
With the Bradenton Police Department for about 13 years, Cox has become familiar with 14th Street West, a hotspot for prostitution. When she began her career, she admitted to trying to be a tough cop, cracking down on all possible crimes. But with women who are potentially sex trafficking victims, establishing trust was most important. She’d sit on the hood of her police cruiser and listen. And the women responded, telling others, “She’s cool.”
Last summer, several members of the police department, including Cox and Lt. William Knight, brought the idea of partnering with Selah to Assistant Chief Paul McWade, and eventually went to Chief Melanie Bevan for approval. She agreed to the idea immediately.
“I think all of us as law enforcement officers need to kind of step back. … Sometimes (if) people need help, you need to sit there and listen,” Cox said. “Not everybody is a suspect.”
That’s a paradigm shift for the police department, said Lt. Brian Thiers.
“It’s a training of a mindset to broaden your horizons. We’re not looking at them like prostitutes anymore; we look at them as potential victims,” he said. “It’s something we’ve never done before.”
The night the woman was arrested, a representative talked privately with the woman, who the Bradenton Herald is not identifying at Selah’s request.
Of course, it has to be her choice to seek help, which she accepted. During her court date this week, her prosecution was paused, and Circuit Court Judge Susan Maulucci and the woman signed a contract for the woman to enter the TYLA Prostitution Court Diversion Program. TYLA, meaning “turn your life around,” is a program started in Sarasota that will now filter into Bradenton. The woman will spend a year with Selah to get treatment and therapy, learn life skills and hopefully not return to her old life. If she completes the program successfully, the charges will be dropped.
“It’s like giving them back their childhood and relaunching,” said Selah Freedom’s president and CEO Elizabeth Fisher.
Everyone’s story is different. But Fisher said these women usually have one thing in common.
“Sexual abuse is the root,” she said.
This becomes a secret bubbling up inside, Fisher said, until a girl decides that living on the streets would be better than life at home.
Then a john comes along, enticing them with money or drugs or love. Fisher said these girls and women are sold for sex as often as 15 to 40 times a day for seven years. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse typically makes them stay. But for many, a family or a degree are waiting for them on the other side.
It’s an effort that involves work from all parties: law enforcement, the courts and Selah Freedom. To help make this change, Fisher said Manatee and Sarasota are ahead of the pack, as Selah has trained law enforcement officers from across the state and even the Houston Police Department before the Super Bowl.
“We are setting the national outcomes and standards, and this is the place that the entire country is looking at to bringing solutions to these girls,” Fisher said. “I want it to be known that Manatee and Sarasota are bringing solid solutions and seen as a leader in this movement.”
And with the first Manatee County woman to choose help, she sets off what all parties hope is a trend.
“We potentially saved a girl from the street and that life, or an overdose, or getting murdered. So it’s pretty awesome,” Cox said.