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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Serial Victims

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There’s nothing like a serial killer to stir a little community excitement. And as long as you don’t have to worry about becoming a victim yourself, it’s actually kind of thrilling.

That’s the dirty little secret about the news that DNA has linked one individual to the murder of at least six prostitutes on the North Side of Milwaukee between 1986 and 2007.

Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm and Police Chief Edward Flynn made national news talking about a possible multiple murderer still walking the streets, since the DNA does not match that of anyone who has been convicted of a crime.

Going back to Jack the Ripper, the only times law enforcement or the public at large express any concern for the lives of prostitutes is when they start getting killed in bunches.

Then there’s a kind of guilty excitement about a human monster among us preying on women in low places. We can shudder over real-life horror without even turning on cable.

You might be surprised who expresses the least excitement about a possible serial killer stalking prostitutes in Milwaukee: That would be prostitutes in Milwaukee.

I happen to know a lot of women who have worked as prostitutes. Before the bad jokes start, my wife knows even more. My wife, Kit, is executive director of the Benedict Center, a nonprofit agency that runs an education and treatment program as an alternative to incarceration for women arrested for prostitution and drugs.

As one of a small number of agencies providing services to such women, the Benedict Center was besieged this past week with interview requests from the media. Reporters were eager to talk to women terrified about having put their lives in danger while a serial killer was at large. The media were disappointed when all their cliches failed to materialize.

The sad truth is women who work as prostitutes know all too well they are putting their lives at risk when they get into cars with strangers who drive them to remote places or abandoned buildings.

They are very familiar with physical and sexual violence. More often than not, they already are living with the trauma of horrific sexual abuse from a very early age. Many are deep into drug addiction and mental illness. They are steeped in guilt and shame over children they have lost and families that have put them out.

So, yes, prostitutes know they’re putting their lives at risk for very little money— money that provides only a brief escape into drugs, leaving them filled with even more self-loathing as the painful downward spiral of their lives continues.

Pretty Woman it ain’t. And the creeps who prey on prostitutes don’t look anything like Richard Gere.

A Better Approach

Some people refer to prostitution as a victimless crime. It’s not. The women are the victims.

Repeated arrests mean women who can barely function from severe personal trauma and low self-esteem are brought even lower. An arrest record makes it even less likely a woman will ever get her children back from foster care. Or that she’ll ever get legitimate employment.

One of the few fortunate things that could happen from an arrest would be getting placed in a treatment program such as the Benedict Center’s.

Perhaps for the first time ever, a woman might have a chance to experience some small positive achievement in her life that can be nurtured into a glimmer of self-respect upon which to build more success.

Some people are taking potshots at Milwaukee police for not doing more about the murder of black prostitutes over the last 20 years until the latest evidence linked a number of the killings.

Between 1986 and 2007, the period in which the linked killings took place, 42 prostitutes were killed in Milwaukee, according to Flynn. Milwaukee police have long had a high clearance rate for homicides. Over the years of the apparent serial killings, police cleared 78% of all homicides. Only 31% of the 42 cases of murdered prostitutes were ever solved.

That doesn’t necessarily mean police care less about solving the murders of poor, African-American women who work as prostitutes. The difficulty in solving murders involving prostitutes comes from the high risk the women themselves know so well. In most cases, only two people have any knowledge of the killing—and one of them is dead.

DNA has provided police with a brand-new tool that can be used not only to link cases, but also to identify perpetrators.

Now what we need is a much broader approach to saving the lives of women involved in prostitution other than arrest and incarceration.

Instead of treating the killing of women as an exciting story on TV, we need to greatly expand drug treatment to provide hope in the lives of people in our community who are so desperate they climb into cars with killers.


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