Preble Street will use a $400,000 federal grant to establish services for prostitution victims in Maine.
Dianne “dee” Clarke used a mascara brush to write a message on the bed, in hopes that the men who paid her captor for sex with her might see it: “Try to help me, I’m only 13 years old.”
It didn’t work. Stranger after stranger was brought into the Boston apartment where she had been held captive since the age of 12 by a pimp who dressed her to look older.
Clarke, now 55, works at Preble Street in Portland as an advocate for victims like herself, and said she is often met with disbelief by people who don’t think sex trafficking like that exists in Maine’s biggest city.
On Monday, she told her story, which she has only begun to tell publicly in bits and pieces since last year, as Preble Street officials announced that the social services agency had received $400,000 in federal funding for an initiative with a coalition of partners to help prostitution victims like her in southern Maine.
The announcement came on the same day that Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, introduced legislation that would allow Maine courts to vacate prostitution convictions to prevent women from being penalized for falling victim to the underground human trafficking trade.
Clarke said in an interview at the Preble Street Teen Center that she was kept in her captor’s second-story apartment. She was duped by an older man who offered to buy her breakfast and left her in the apartment instead. She didn’t think of running away until her captor and his girlfriend, whom she knew only as “Red” and “Fast,” stole another, older girl off the street to pimp out.
“I don’t know how long she was there until she talked me into escaping with her,” Clarke said, recalling the details even though the events took place 42 years ago. “I climbed over the back porch with her. There was melting snow on the ground.”
She recalled running through Boston alleyways with the other girl, finding a phone to call her mother for the first time in months and then getting a ride in a taxi that was called for them.
“When we got there, the police were there,” Clarke said. “They were excited like they knew the girl was missing. Nobody knew I was missing.”
She struggled at first to tell the police what really happened, and when she did, her mother “turned her back” on her. She was eventually taken in by another pimp, then worked as a stripper until she finally met a friend who cared for her and took her away to Maine when she was 19 years old. Clarke began seeking help from Preble Street several years ago, when she and her children were homeless.
“To get through all the things I needed to get through, I just went away,” Clarke said of those difficult years. “My physical being was there, but my soul went away.”
Clarke likened that portion of her life to a driver with highway hypnosis who suddenly finds herself miles down the road with no memory of how she got there.
Daniella Cameron, supervisor of Preble Street Teen Services, said sex trafficking — usually involving homeless girls coerced by men into prostitution — isn’t something that the victims will talk about unless asked the right questions in the right way.
“So many people don’t realize it’s happening here. If you don’t see the signs, you aren’t going to notice that it’s happening,” Cameron said. “We started seeing girls who were coming into the Teen Center, reporting these horrible stories about being held against their will and being pimped out. It became much more clear that they were being victimized and exploited.”
Advocates for homeless teenagers, young women and people with disabilities in Maine say there are no definite statistics for how prevalent a problem sex trafficking — or buying and selling young women for prostitution — is here. Those numbers are unknown in part because no one had been studying sex trafficking as a problem in Maine until about two years ago. Sex trafficking is also done in secret, often with no written record, and perpetrated against young girls too ashamed or afraid to speak out.
Preble Street will begin receiving the first $200,000 installment of the two-year grant from the Department of Justice this fall to be used in part to hire a coordinator to pool the resources of agencies in southern Maine and develop a statewide network of housing and shelter options for victims of sex trafficking. The money will also be used to fund health and mental health programs for victims and legal assistance to vulnerable immigrants, as well as to file protective orders.
Efforts in Maine to identify the problem of trafficking began in 2011 with the formation of the Greater Portland Coalition Against Trafficking and Exploitation, a multiagency group that now has more than 60 people who meet monthly. Portland police are a key part of the group.
To draft the new proposed legislation, Volk worked with the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization against human trafficking, after learning that Maine ranks among the states with weak anti-trafficking laws.
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at:[email protected]Twitter: @scottddolan