March is Women’s History Month, and in cooperation with many campus departments and offices, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program has organized seven events that all connect with the month’s theme: Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment.

The keynote address, “Combating Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Women,” will feature three panelists, Mary DeFusco, Esq., Anne Marie Jones, and Sister Terry Shields, all of whom are actively involved in Dawn’s Place and Project Dawn Court, two Philadelphia-based organizations that help women who have been victims of human trafficking.

Dawn’s Place gives women who have been affected by commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) a safe place to stay.  Project Dawn Court is a program that helps women with repeat prostitution offenses break the cycle of recidivism.  Project Dawn Court participants must take part in year-long substance abuse and sexual trauma counseling and monthly updates with Judge Marsha Neifield while remaining drug-free.  If they successfully complete the program, then their open case is removed from their record.

Mary DeFusco, Esq., is the Director of Training and Recruitment at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and a founder of both Dawn’s Place and Project Dawn Court.  A public defender with over thirty-years experience, DeFusco always wanted to help women who were being arrested for prostitution.  In 2006, she attended her first meeting of the Philadelphia Anti-Trafficking Coalition, where she found that there were no housing options available for women affected by CSE.  At this meeting she met Sister Teresita Hinnegan, a member of the Medical Mission Sisters and the Catholic Coalition, who was also interested in creating a residential program for women affected by CSE, both domestically and internationally.  Together, along with Sister Terry Shields, Sister Kathleen Coll, and Marissa Bluestin, Esq., DeFusco and Hinnegan founded Dawn’s Place, named to honor a murdered prostituted woman from Camden and to signify their hope that women who come to this organization would experience the “dawning” of a new day.

 After the 2007 opening of Dawn’s Place, DeFusco wanted to continue her efforts and reach out to women who weren’t living at the residence.  A member of the team that had developed the Philadelphia Treatment Court (PTC), which was the first problem-solving court in Pennsylvania, DeFusco felt that a similar system could help prostituted women who often “cycle in and out of jail with no help available to them.”  She and then-Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich used the PTC concept to develop Project Dawn Court, which launched in 2010 as the nation’s first problem-solving court to address the issues presented by prostitution.  New York State has since begun using prostitution intervention courts which follow the Project Dawn Court model.

Since its inception, Project Dawn Court has graduated seventy percent of its 28 participants.  One such success story is that of Anne Marie Jones.  After suffering sexual abuse as a young teenager, Jones was trapped in a decade-long snare of drug addiction and prostitution.  She successfully completed the Project Dawn Court program in 2011, and now serves as an advocate, peer specialist, and mentor at Dawn’s Place.

Stories like Jones’s make the financial challenge of running Dawn’s Place and Project Dawn Court worth it.  Neither organization has any sustained funding; Dawn’s Place relies solely on private donations.  Despite this challenge, the reward is significant.  For DeFusco, “seeing the clean, sober, and happy women [graduate from] these programs” makes Dawn’s Place and Project Dawn Court two valuable enterprises.

Learn more about both Dawn’s Place and Project Dawn Court at the Women’s History Month keynote address on Wednesday, March 5th, at 5:30 p.m. in the South ABC Conference Room of the Campus Center.  This event, co-sponsored by Law Students Against Human Trafficking, is free and open to the public.

Written By Julie Roncinske