For a young 25-year-old mother of two, her youngest only six months old, pleading guilty to a felony charge of prostitution was an “opportunity to get my life together.”
Under Cook County WINGS (Women In Need of Gender Specific Services) court, Bianca Campbell will serve two years of probation and has signed a contract promising to complete the treatment and social services at Chicago Dream Center to end her ties to prostitution. She will be jailed for at least 90 days while being evaluated for drug, alcohol or other problems and now has a chance to stabilize from substance abuse or emotional trauma.
The WINGS court system opened their doors to women in 2011, after Criminal Court Presiding Judge Paul Biebel, had been working to set up the court for about two years before with the help of Chicago’s Coalition for the Homeless.
“The once-a-week courtroom opens its doors in the Criminal Courts Building to 25-to-27 women, many of whom are mothers, who have a long history of arrests and are currently charged with felony prostitution,” said Associate Judge Rosemary Grant Higgins, who heads the specialized court.
Higgins, 58, from the South Side, received her specialty call for WINGS court in 2011 despite receiving her call to full felonies right before. Although she said at the time, she was not the least bit excited to be a part of the WINGS court; it has been “the most important work I have done so far.”
Many of the women who come through the courtroom doors who opt to take part and plead guilty to the felony charge(s) are between 30-to-45-years-old and say, “’I don’t want to die in the streets, and that’s where I’m headed,’” said Higgins to Columbia College students Monday morning.
Walking away from Higgins’ bench, with her hands clasped behind her back, Campbell addressed the college students by saying she is here because of prostitution and has had “issues with marijuana and other stuff.”
Campbell’s felony, like the 80 percent of others, is drug related crimes said Mike Steiner, a tour guide of the Cook County Criminal Court House.
For Campbell, the Chicago Dream Center will be able to not only help her with her trauma of prostitution, but also with her drug abuse and helping her get her children back.
“Both my children are with my mother,” said Campbell.
Another prostitute who pled guilty and is currently in a rehabilitation program only has another 50 more days before she can receive her certificate and be able to leave. Some of the duties in the program include “keeping people in line. I gotta’ make sure everyone gets their stuff done,” said Diane Sanders.
Sanders’ is like a mother to the younger women and helps them when needed. She has been in the program for 68 days.
Despite seeing people like Sanders, embracing the changed life WINGS has to offer, Higgins says, “It’s the best we can do. We have a lot of work cut out for us.”
“Women in the sex trade often share a common background. Many were physically or sexually abused in their youth, addicted to drugs or turned to prostitution because of homelessness,” said Brenda Myers-Powell, a survivor of the human sex trade industry and founding leader of the Prostitution Alternatives Round Table.
Brenda Myers-Powell, with the help of senior research fellows at DePaul University College of Law, Jody Raphael and Stephanie Daniels, conducted research that found, “2/3 of the sample (young girls in the trafficking business) were forced to live in certain places, not allowed to keep any money they earned, and not allowed to leave without physical harm.”
Myers-Powell addressed survivors, Jan. 19, at a benefit that presented awards to both Judge Biebel and Judge Higgins stating: “Survivors it is so important that you find your voice and tell your story of how you made it through years of abuse and trauma and you’re still standing and looking very well I might add,” reported Ed Shurna, Executive Director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“And don’t just stand by and tell your story but participate in how the new story should be written. Stand up and be recognized not just as a survivor and a story but as an advocate, as a counselor, as an organizer, as a policy maker, as having a BA, MA, what the heck a PHD. It is yours, feel it, taste it, and go for it.”
Although there are survivors like Myers-Powell, many of those who cannot make it out are stuck with little to no help till they get arrested. Like Higgins said, “No one cares about them. They feel they are dispensable.”