Scott Ball / Rivard Report
It was difficult for many of the 100 or so people gathered in the Crosspoint, Inc. church Friday afternoon to not get emotional when Amy, 40, shared her story of abuse, drug addiction, and perseverance. She was one of four women who told the audience about their journeys from a life of prostitution and incarceration to one of structure and sobriety.
And their newfound stability, they said, was all because they were given a second chance and a little esperanza – a little hope. That hope helped make Amy and eight other women the very first graduating class from the Bexar County Esperanza Court program, a specialty treatment court for individuals with three or more convictions for prostitution.
The gravity of the occasion Friday was not lost on Amy, who told the Rivard Report she’s never graduated from anything before in her entire life. Her name and the names of her classmates photographed have been changed in this article for privacy.
“I’ve never really finished anything so this is the beginning of great, great days for me,” she said. “And if I can finish this, then I have faith that I can really do what God has called me to do.”
The state-mandated Esperanza Court program, which is funded by a governors and a local grant, started in spring 2014 under the leadership of 175th Criminal Judge Mary Román, who later retired and handed responsibilities over to 144th Criminal Judge Lorina Rummel in May. The program’s goal is to keep prostitutes off the streets by providing a variety of intensive drug and alcohol treatments, therapy sessions, and other health and social services to participants.
Rummel, the probation officers, and all of the health care providers involved in the Esperanza Court base treatment for participants on “a trauma-informed care approach,” which means looking at each participant as a victim of long time abuse, and not as a perpetrator.
“They all have very similar backgrounds,” Rummel told the Rivard Report. Many have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused as children and as adults. Even more have battled drug addictions, which eventually led them to prostitution.
Amy and her younger sister were raised by their single mother, who was addicted to drugs. From age 7-11, Amy was sexually abused. She started smoking crack cocaine at 18, and became addicted about 15 years later. She later lost her seven children to the foster care system, and started prostituting soon after.
“I felt like I had lost everything, even my mind,” she told the Rivard Report ahead of Friday’s graduation ceremony. “I didn’t even realize I had lost (my ability) to be responsible and accountable for my own actions.”
One day, she realized how tired – physically and emotionally – she was walking down the Eastside street where she frequently prostituted. She said a prayer.
“I said, ‘God, I’m tired. And if you can help me get out of this, please Lord, help me, but don’t send me to jail,’ but that’s exactly what happened,” she said. She eventually was offered to join the Esperanza program, and did so without hesitation.
“I knew that I needed some help,” she said. “God sent this program into my life.”
Esperanza Court participants must have a history of prostitution and be on probation. Rummel and her team work with defense attorneys to determine if the program is the right fit for each individual. But taking part in the four-phase program doesn’t necessarily mean an inmate is released from jail, Rummel said. Many first phase participants who are incarcerated often remain in jail for a time and only allowed to leave for medical treatments.
All participants cannot pick up a new offense and are required to meet with Rummel periodically. They must remain drug-free, follow a curfew, and go to all of their counseling sessions, Rummel said. If not, they are sanctioned, prolonging their time in the program.
“We address setbacks because of course we expect it,” Rummel said. “We’re asking these girls to completely change their lives.”
Throughout the two to two-and-a-half-year program, participants can work their way up to more independence. They eventually have the option to live on their own and work, as long as they continue with their treatments.
“We don’t let (participants) go into a higher phase which would result in less treatment until we feel that (they) are mentally and physically stable and ready,” Rummel said. “It’s very individualized to each participant.”
The team works with 20 different organizations across the city that provide a multitude of services – healthcare, therapy, education, job training, and even housing for those participants who are eligible. Crosspoint, Inc., where Friday’s graduation ceremony was held, is a key partner with the County for this program and provides structured housing and other resources for Esperanza Court individuals.
Román, who praised the graduates – and the more than 20 other men and women still in the program – for their courage and hard work, said that the program was “a daunting task” to create, but an important resource that can have profound effects on participants and their loved ones.
“We want to dismantle the barriers that exclude people,” she said.
Each of the graduates Friday stood proudly in their caps and gowns. The audience was made up of family, friends, County staff, and other supporters for the Esperanza Court graduates. Amy, who accepted her program certificate beaming, said the program taught her to love herself and reminded her that she once had dreams that she should still strive to realize.
And she’s going to do so confidently.
“Even though it’s a prostitution program, I’m still proud of myself. I feel like I’ve been resurrected, born again,” she said. “And I have to be grateful that it was prostitution, because what other program would have accepted me and helped to change me?”