In 2011, Henrico County began a new initiative to reduce prostitution in the area. However, the County did not anticipate the complexity of this issue. Through undercover sting operations, law enforcement soon discovered that many of these individuals had long histories of sexual violence. Some individuals were even being sexually exploited against their will, a form of human trafficking.

Henrico County responded by reaching out to Safe Harbor, and after thoughtful conversations, the County decided to take a different approach toward addressing the issue. Rather than be overly punitive, the County partnered with Safe Harbor to provide additional services to individuals charged with prostitution.

The first time an individual receives charges related to prostitution, CCP refers them to complete counseling with Safe Harbor as an alternative to serving jail time. When an individual is referred from CCP, Safe Harbor counselors provide an intake that includes assessing the individual for issues related to substance use, involvement in human trafficking, or any other trauma. This initial intake provides the counselors with a general picture of what this person’s life is like and how they can best benefit from Safe Harbor’s services.

Individuals who become involved with prostitution are more likely to have experienced sexual or domestic violence.

Next, all referred individuals attend a weekly, four-session adult counseling group aimed at providing psycho-education on sexual and domestic violence. The goal is to teach the participants about identifying healthy and unhealthy patterns of relationships and sexuality, as well as safety planning, positive coping skills and self-esteem.

The group facilitators also introduce guest speakers from the community, who can provide greater detail about the human trafficking and substance abuse services available in our area. Each session is facilitated in a way that provokes open discussion and empowerment.

Many clients have mentioned that this is the “first” time they have ever learned about these issues. Consequently, this exposure through Safe Harbor has given them needed insight and empowerment regarding the choices they can make moving forward.

Elda Flores, a probation officer with the CCP program, stated, “The groups have provided these victims with the basic foundation needed to make positive changes in their lives.”

Safe Harbor has received other positive feedback from members of Henrico County law enforcement who have participated in this collaborative.

“Henrico County’s unique approach of enforcement paired with treatment is proving to be a success because of the efforts of all of the community partners,” Michael Feinmel, the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for the County said. “Safe Harbor came to the table, not just with ideas, but with an extremely comprehensive plan that meets the needs of many of the women whom we are attempting to reach.”

Once these clients complete their group session, their court mandate is complete. However, they can choose to remain in individual counseling or join one of Safe Harbor’s therapeutic sexual or domestic violence groups. The most important part of this collaborative is to provide clients with information they may have never had before. One client remarked: “I need all the help I can get. I never realized I had a choice, I don’t have to participate in things that are not healthy for me.”

Safe Harbor is proud to be reaching a community of people who have often not received services and are victims of sexual violence through our strong relations in Henrico County.