COURTING SUCCESS: dignity, justice for women trapped in Colfax prostitution


AURORA | It was almost 20 years ago that Joanne Cordova stood in front of a judge to testify against a man accused of killing 22-year-old prostitute Anita Paley.

Cordova was a friend of Paley’s. During the interrogation, Cordova was offhandedly called a whore by the defense attorney, and to her embarrassment, was also asked to describe in detail her own sexual encounters with the killer before he met Paley. Cordova knew Paley through working the streets together.

Former Westword writer Steve Jackson, who documented Cordova’s testimony in the trial, went on to write a book about her life,  “Rough Trade.” It told of Cordova’s fall from her job as a Denver cop in the 1980s to selling herself on Colfax Avenue. 

Today was different though. Attorneys were not interrogating Cordova about her drug habits or sneering at her past. Some people were congratulating her, wiping away their tears, while others told her how much they admired her and wanted to be like her. 

“This is a journey to wellness,” Cordova said, proudly standing as the first graduate of Aurora’s newest specialty court, called Females Utilizing Treatment and Undertaking Recovery Efforts, or FUTURE, at the Division 5 courtroom in the Aurora Municipal Center.  

Cordova, who’s now in her fifties, has flowing straight dark hair with stripes of gray. She stood at the lectern in a long floral black-and-white dress and a black cardigan, trembling slightly as she addressed her friends in the program as well as the crowd of supporters who had come to watch. 

“When I began the FUTURE program, the thing that I felt most was that it was overwhelming. I had lost my freedom, and was given assignments that seemed too difficult to complete,” she said. “During the early stages of my treatment, I found out it was normal to be overwhelmed. I learned to use the coping skills and grounding techniques which I was taught early on in treatment. And they still work today.” 

The court project addresses the reality of life as a prostitute, a life almost always mired in drugs, alcohol, poverty and abuse. FUTURE is a grant-funded program that begin in late December 2012 — the newest of Aurora’s wellness courts — that aims to rehabilitate prostitutes who have been repeatedly arrested by Aurora police. It consists of intensive probation that includes psychiatric treatment and weekly court visits. 

At Mariposa House, where the nine women participating in the program are required live, they complete life skills classes that range from relapse prevention to GED preparation and anger

For Cordova, having structure and a stable living situation helped her finally make the leap from repeat offender to graduate. 

“I created a schedule for my day, not at the day’s completion, but before the day began. That’s when I realized that scheduling was a catalyst for sobriety. I noticed as long as my day was full, to include time for me, I was OK every day, and was able to keep myself out of harm’s way,” she explained. 

Corin Flannigan, a probation officer with the FUTURE program, said the point is not to impose a list of rules upon the women that they won’t end up following. It’s up to the women to create their case plans — what they want to accomplish and how they plan to achieve their goals. 

“We’re not accepting people who aren’t articulating they want to change,” she said. “They have to say I’m tired of this, and I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s a hard enough program. This isn’t an easy get-out-of-jail (card) by any stretch.”

Once admitted to the program, the women have access to a range of resources and support they would otherwise have to pay for. 

“In a traditional probation model, you’re reporting once a month,” she explained. “It’s just not as responsive to the women in this program who have a lot of needs. They have mental health needs, substance abuse issues, vocational needs. All of them have trauma so they need therapy. This program provides all of that to them at no cost.” 

Carrie Smart, who’s also a probation officer with the program, added that because the women live in the Mariposa House in Denver and commute to Aurora, they still see the pimps and dealers they worked and lived with on the streets. A free bus pass is provided to participants.

“When you remove (yourself) from all of your stimulus, it’s easier to stay sober,” she said. “I think it’s helpful that they’re actually having to deal with the same challenges everyday, and they’ve got people to talk to. It’s great to watch their toolkits build. Their safety plans for ‘Who do I call when I feel like I’m going to use?’” 

Cordova may have been the star of the court session, but the probation officers also used the time in court to sing happy birthday to two other FUTURE participants. 

As other participants spoke about their progress, presiding Judge Richard Weinberg told them they were rock stars, and not to be to hard on themselves. That they were on the right track. The courtroom had a familial feel rather than adversarial tone, one of the tenants of the problem-solving court

Cordova said she plans to still live at the Mariposa House where she can help others graduate from the program, and serve as a mentor. 

“This is the first time an invitation has ever been extended to someone to keep on staying at Mariposa House forever and ever and ever,” said Marty Lees, a staff therapist at Mariposa. “The women at Mariposa help Joanne, and Joanne helps the women at Mariposa.”