By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – When most passers-by see young women on a street corner working as prostitutes, the standard reaction is one of judgment or scorn. But when Sister Kathleen Coll passes by, her reaction is one of pity and concern – and a recognition that in most cases, the women aren’t there of their own accord, but very often out of coercion.
As the executive director of Dawn’s Place, a Philadelphia safe-house for victims and survivors of sex trafficking, Coll is working to expose the myth that commercial sexual exploitation isn’t something that happens in far away places, but something that goes on in neighborhoods close to home.
Coll, who is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, attributes her passion for fighting for social justice to both her mother and her work in inner-city schools.
One year after graduating high school in Philly, where she was born and raised, Coll joined the very same order that taught her in grade school. Upon first joining their ranks, it was her turn to have a go at teaching, initially in Philadelphia and then in the nation’s capital.
“I think it was realizing the plight of African Americans in our own country that drove my quest for justice,” Coll told The Tablet.
After working in the schools and then with teenagers in the heart of Philadelphia, Coll became the social justice coordinator for her Congregation, where she attended a workshop organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on sex trafficking.
Together with several members of her religious order, she began to consider how they might get involved in the growing movement to combat sex trafficking.
“Education is important, raising awareness is important, but we wanted to know what we could do practically,” she recalls.
When they first heard that Mary DeFusco, a public defender in Philadelphia, was looking to start a residential program for sex trafficking victims, their first reaction was “that only happens to foreign born people.”
Like many Americans, Coll said they were “shocked” to hear “horrendous stories” about what was happening in their own city.
In 2007, Dawn’s House was established, named after a prostituted woman who had been murdered in nearby Camden, New Jersey. Two years later, the Sisters opened their doors, with nine bedrooms available to women who are trying to escape the vicious cycle of sex slavery.
Nearly ten years later, Dawn’s House has grown into two homes where, collectively, nearly 100 women have been provided safe harbor and rehabilitation.
Some women find the home through internet searches or are brought to the facility through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but many come directly from prison, as they have been incarcerated while working as forced prostitutes.
While every story is particular, Coll says that a common refrain she hears are stories where women were sexually abused by a family member at a young age, and after unsuccessful efforts to get family members to believe them, they leave home – only to later find themselves in the claws of pimps and traffickers.
“These traffickers are very skilled in knowing how to appeal to the girls,” said Coll, noting that victims are often coaxed by promises of love and support, only to find themselves in a nightmare scenario where they become sex slaves with few options for escape.
“It’s all around us,” Coll insists, noting that too often there is the tendency to “judge women on the corner as wanting to do that.”
While she concedes that there may be situations in which women do willfully engage in commercial sex, she believes that most Americans are “truly shocked by the danger some teenagers put themselves into whether it’s on the web, at the mall, or on the street” and against their will.
As Coll travels around to parishes to enlighten people about what’s happening around them, she finds it regrettable how few Catholics seem to be clued in to the realities in their own backyards.
In recent years, however she says the movement against sex trafficking has received a booster shot from Pope Francis who speaks about it with great frequency.
“While Pope Benedict XVI wrote about it strongly, Pope Francis speaks about it, too,” Coll told The Tablet.
“Having the backing of the pope has been very good,” Coll said. “He’s very conscious of those who are poor, of those who are oppressed, and certainly those who are trafficked have been oppressed and are poor.”
Along with aiding victims and survivors, and her educational work on the issue, Coll also spends time lobbying for anti-trafficking legislation in hopes that fewer women will suffer the horrors that she witnesses on a daily basis.
For the women at Dawn’s Place, they are told they can stay for a full year while they receive therapy and are supported in their efforts to find work, and in some cases, to be reunited with their families.
In some cases, survivors will stay longer than a year, because Coll ensures them that they will never be homeless.
Reflecting on the grim work she’s engaged in, Coll maintains a sense of optimism and a conviction that a brighter future awaits the women that cycle through the doors of her program.
“When we see women leaving the program, and they have jobs and they’re trying to get their families back, it’s worth it,” she believes. “People have condemned them, and when they come to us feeling lower than the lowest. But then we get to see them grow – not only wanting to change their lives, but to live a full life, and that’s the best hope we can get.”