Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Helping hookers escape the life

Groups urged to see need for aid

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

She's a former prostitute and recovering heroin addict whose life turnaround and work to help women has drawn prestigious awards from Harvard and Oprah.

Norma Holtaling was homeless and selling her body on the streets of San Francisco 15 years ago.

Now she's executive director of SAGE, Standing Against Global Exploitation, a San Francisco non-profit organization that uses peer counseling to help women and girls who have been arrested for prostitution or victimized by sexual violence.

She's in Cincinnati this week working with criminal justice officials to help them understand prostitutes more as people who need help than as criminals. She'll talk about her life and work Thursday at Northern Kentucky University to leaders of local non-profit agencies.

"We don't have to sit here and kind of push (prostitution) away," Holtaling said. "We can try to understand it. And we can have solutions that more match the problem."

Most prostitutes have underlying issues such as drug addictions or a history of being sexually abused. So it's misguided, she said, to "punish (prostitutes) for their victimization."

Among Holtaling's suggestions: correct any gender bias in enforcement of prostitution laws by arresting as many sex buyers as sellers.

In San Francisco, as part of a project there with police, she said buyers who are arrested are ordered to pay fees, and the money pays for services for women and girls.

Her agency's work won an Innovations in American Government Award in 1998 from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the 2000 Innovation Award from the Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management.

In 2001, Holtaling accepted a Use Your Life award from Oprah Winfrey.

Officials of local non-profits can register for the workshop by calling NKU's Department of Professional Studies at (859) 572-5666. The $35 fee includes lunch.

E-mail jprendergast@enquirer .com

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