By Laura Ohata
Northwest Asian Weekly
Lan Pham was only nine-years-old when she left Vietnam. “The refugee <!–more–>experience really defined my passion and what I would like to do as a kid and as an adult,” says Pham. “I witnessed violence, not only experienced through war, but the violence women refugees experience as part of their escape, or transition to America.
Lan Pham oversees a $4.9 million-dollar budget as newly appointed manager of the mayor’s Office for Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Prevention. Her team brings together different governmental and non-governmental agencies to provide wrap-around services for each victim, providing housing, healthcare, education, jobs, and treatment for chemical dependency.
“This position is very important,” says Pham. “Even when I was in college, domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking were issues that people really rarely talked about. It is usually talked about when victims experience violence and they come forward. I feel like a lot of communities, even today, are still maybe uncomfortable in addressing the issue, because when it comes to interpersonal violence that a lot of it has to do with personal relationships, and sometimes people feel like it is not an issue that others should intervene [in.]”
Attitudes are changing in light of new data gathered by law enforcement agencies. City Attorney Peter S. Holmes published a newsletter called “Rewriting the Prostitution Narrative,” in which he stated, “For the first time, we are actively focusing on investigating and prosecuting the buyers of sex, whom we believe are the real offenders…Information gathered by SPD shows that sellers of sex are predominantly poor women with few alternatives; they are lured or forced into “the life” by a history of sexual abuse, substance addiction, and severe poverty.
Further, statistics gathered by the SPD between 2006 and 2010 estimate that 90 percent of the prostituted people on Seattle streets are controlled by a pimp. These pimps exert control through violence and threats of force.”
Similarly, Craig Sims, Criminal Division Chief, published a memorandum dated October 23rd, 2013, entitled “Updated Prostitution Policy,” stating that criminal charges against prostitutes would be dropped if they attend and complete a Sex Industry Worker’s Class; take an HIV test; work with social support contacts; among other requirements. Charges would be filed, however, in the case of a repeat offense.
When police officers work with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking, they send them to Pham’s office for help.
“Since 2009 we have been investing in contracts with non-profit organizations to provide victim advocacy,” says Pham. “They go through an assessment process and then, based on what their needs are, they would work with an advocate to assist them, whether it is employment, addressing their chemical dependency needs, or getting housing.”
Pham grew up in north New Jersey in an environment of high poverty and high crime and saw how race, class, gender, and neighborhood determined outcomes. “I think being a child, and being raised by a single mom with five kids, that a lot of what I was really doing was social work without identifying it,” says Pham. I was the youngest so it was very natural for me to be the interpreter of a lot of her meetings with DSHS [Department of Social and Health Services] getting all of her paperwork done with helping her find work.”
Pham was still in high school when her mother moved the family to Washington State. Pham attended The University of Washington, where she earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in social work. “I really started work in ending violence against women in college. I joined the committee organizing rape education, which was an on-campus peer-to-peer education on sexual assault. I think that really spring-boarded my career; now it’s been 20 years.”
In 2014, Pham’s office ran a pilot program called the Coordinated Effort Against Sexual Exploitation, or CEASE. The resulting partnership between the City of Seattle Systems and nonprofit agencies provided a suite of services for people involved in prostitution. “We have been lucky enough to have help from programs that we don’t fund, but due to their commitment, have been part of that,” says Pham. “So, agencies like YouthCare, YWCA, have been two of our main partners.” Other organizations on the team include Seattle Human Services Department, Seattle Police Department, Seattle Municipal Court, and the City Attorney’s Office.
In 2015 Pham’s office will launch the Domestic Violence Response Center, a partnership between the City of Seattle, King County, and members of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Pham says, “Part of that is to really elevate the issue by not only enhancing criminal justice response by having this co-location of criminal justice agencies, but also to make that connection with agencies and programs that are community based that we are already funding and have relationships with.”
Pham says, “…I have had personal interactions with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking. And, I think that once you have made that connection, and know of people who have experienced violence, that it affects you for a lifetime. You can’t really walk away from that … without doing something about it.” (end)
Laura Ohata can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.