Surge of prostitutes has Camden looking for answers

The Ward Center playground on Broadway is fenced in to protect the youngsters. Director Barbara Ward-Farmer is amazed by the nearby prostitution: "I've never seen it so open. It's multiplying. These ladies here are walking zombies."
The Ward Center playground on Broadway is fenced in to protect the youngsters. Director Barbara Ward-Farmer is amazed by the nearby prostitution: "I've never seen it so open. It's multiplying. These ladies here are walking zombies." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 14, 2012

Employees of Mi Casita Day Care have long been used to seeing prostitutes along their Broadway block in Camden, but not in the numbers they've been seeing of late.

"They've always been around, but they were more south . . . and not this many," Mi Casita executive director Flora Rivera said. In the last several months, a surge of "new girls" has arrived to do business in the city, Rivera and others have noticed.

The influx of young prostitutes, and the drug use that accompanies them, has become a concern for staff and parents at Mi Casita and other day-care centers and preschools in the area.

Rivera and at least one parent have written to Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd and other elected officials to address the situation.

Rivera also spoke to the mayor last week, and since then has seen patrol cars drive around. On Thursday and Friday, a police mobile command center was parked nearby. But not much has changed, she said.

Needles and vials still turn up almost every morning on the front steps of Mi Casita, which is housed in a former church, and in its parking lot.

At any time of day, women who appear to be prostitutes are standing at Mi Casita's Broadway and Spruce Street corner, waiting for customers to drive up.

"It's blatant, right in front," said Wilfredo Rojas, who drives to Mi Casita from Mickleton so his 4-year-old daughter can receive a bilingual education. "My daughter wants to know what those women are doing out there."

Rojas is trying to arrange a meeting with elected officials to discuss solutions, including passing legislation similar to a state law enacted last year in New York that increased fines and sentences for those arrested for prostitution or for promoting prostitution within 1,000 feet of a school.

The law was modeled after the drug-free school zones enacted in many states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In New York, the tougher penalties for prostitution near schools were enacted after parents of children at a Bronx elementary complained about a situation similar to Mi Casita's.

"Any law is as good as police enforce it," said State Sen. Ruben Diaz (D., Bronx), a sponsor of the antiprostitution measure. He believes it has been effective, noting, "I haven't gotten any more complaints from [parents]."

Cities across the country are also looking at better ways to treat prostitution, said Mary DeFusco of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which provides legal services to indigent criminal defendants.

About a year ago, Philadelphia started Project Dawn Court - a prostitution intervention court - for women with repeat prostitution offenses and nonviolent records. For a minimum of a year, the women are treated for drug and alcohol addiction and receive sexual-trauma recovery counseling.

Though Camden does not have any diversionary programs, the police and Prosecutor's Office have been working closely with a local ministry, Seeds of Hope, which reaches out to the homeless, former offenders, and prostitutes.

Seeds of Hope founders Bill and Brenda Antinore recently bought a three-story house on Broadway near Ferry Avenue that will be converted into a counseling and drop-in center for prostitutes and drug addicts. The center is expected to be open by the start of the year.

"That piece of the ministry will be a refuge for the girls," Brenda Antinore said. "So they can have a little bit of dignity."

Barbara Ward-Farmer, director of LaBar Kids Day Care Center at Faith Tabernacle Church of Living God on Spruce Street and the Ward Center for Children at Broadway and Chestnut Street, is amazed and saddened by the number of young women selling themselves outside the two day cares.

"I've never seen it so open. It's multiplying," Ward-Farmer said. "These ladies here are walking zombies."

Two months ago, the fence around the playground at LaBar was stolen and the area became flooded with drug users and their paraphernalia, Ward-Farmer said. Children are taken outside to play only when the alley next to the church seems safe, she said.

"Now let's face it, that's not right," she said.

Mi Casita recently spent $8,000 to erect a high vinyl fence to block the view from its playground of Ramona Gonzalez Street and the abandoned LaBar playground, which are often overrun by addicts, prostitutes, johns, and pimps.

"You see everything: trucks, Mercedes-Benzes," Rivera said.

Since April, Camden police have arrested 232 people on prostitution-related charges in 11 sweeps targeting prostitutes and one that targeted johns. But Detective Elizer Agron said prostitutes usually get a summons, are quickly released, and go right back to the streets.

"They are slaves to drugs," Agron said. "We can lock them up three times a week and they will be right back out there."

As for passing a law like New York's, Agron said police would welcome "any law that would benefit us."

But he added: "We know we can't arrest ourselves out of these problems. . . . That's why we bring in the faith-based groups to try to get them help."

Like drug dealers, prostitutes claim turf.

"My corner is over there," Giselle, a petite 31-year-old with piercing blue eyes, said, pointing to a corner where the Pine Street Head Start preschool has its playground diagonally across from Mi Casita.

Giselle, who said she had been working as a prostitute in Camden for four years, said the day cares and preschools were right to be upset. But she said she was discreet when the children were out and did not engage in sexual activity in front of them.

A drug addict and prostitute since she was 15, Giselle said she felt bad for the new women arriving because of the many dangers they face.

"Girls get raped every day, and when new girls come, the [pimps] make them pay" to be able to get a corner to work, Giselle said. She said she worked for herself and lived with her best friend - another prostitute she met when she moved to Camden - in a boarded-up vacant house nearby.

Many of the new girls staking out prostitution turf in Camden are teenagers from the suburbs who have become addicted to prescription pills and eventually fall into heroin and other drugs, Giselle said.

"Drugs don't discriminate," she said. "It takes everyone down."


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow

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