Selling Herself: Her daughter is homeless, sick & prostituting for drugs. She's trying to save her.

Melissa Pratt is desperate to reach her daughter.

Author's Note: This story is the fourth in a series about prostitution in the city of Indianapolis. Start with Part I, "Becoming Carmen," here.

M.C. was limping down the street, a large bandage covering her lower left leg, when an officer pulled over to talk with her. He knew her as a prostitute with a history of narcotics use, but she didn’t have the bandage last time he’d seen her. Nor did she then have the open sores covering her body.

The officer, East District Patrolman Nathan Shell, asked her about the wound. M.C. said she’d been attacked by a dog and bent over to show him the bite mark.

When she did, Shell spotted a glass pipe – the kind used to smoke crack or crystal meth – tucked into her bra.

Shell placed M.C. in handcuffs on suspicion of possession of paraphernalia. A quick search showed she had an open warrant for her arrest for a case from three months earlier in which she’d offered to perform a sex act an undercover detective for $30. Police found a crack pipe on her that time, too.

The officer took M.C. to Eskenazi Hospital, and then to jail. It was, at that point, her 14th time behind bars in the past five years – almost all of those arrests for prostitution or paraphernalia.

Unlike previous arrests, this time M.C. remained behind bars at the Marion County Jail for three months. It was long enough for her mother, Melissa Pratt, to get in contact with her. And long enough for her to hope that this time, maybe the idea of recovery would stick.

“[M.C.] has made great efforts while she has been in jail,” Pratt wrote in a letter, dated Aug. 24, 2017, to her daughter’s judge. “She has made decisions to come and stay with us when she gets out. To get medical treatment. To attend drug rehab. To get her GED. To be a decent, law-abiding, productive citizen. And above all to be a good mother to her 5-year-old little boy who needs her very, very much. We have great hopes for her and she has a loving and supportive family who will help her.”

 

Pratt asked the judge to hold her daughter accountable by sentencing her to home detention – Pratt offered her own house up for it – or as long a probationary period as possible. 

Four days later, M.C. appeared in Marion County Criminal Court 18 and pleaded guilty to one count of prostitution. Judge William Nelson sentenced her to time served.

Since prostitution is a misdemeanor in Indiana, and a non-violent one at that, the sentences tend to be low. Even with two prior convictions, at which point prostitution becomes a level 6 felony, prison sentences are rare.

By Oct. 19, M.C. was back in jail, again charged with prostituting herself on the Near Eastside to feed her drug addiction. Since her court appearance in August 2017, she’s been arrested five more times – most recently on July 31 for a probation violation from a previous prostitution case. As of this writing, M.C. remains in custody at the Marion County Jail.

Pratt said she last saw her daughter months ago when she attended a court appearance. M.C.’s 6-year-old son hasn’t seen his mother in three years.

A Prison of her Own Making

“As far as I know she’s homeless. On the streets. She’s fallen into the sex trade industry in order for her to support her drug habit,” Pratt says.

Pratt is uncomfortable on camera – uncomfortable telling the story of her 25-year-old daughter’s struggles with addiction, and the ways she’s found to feed it. But she doesn’t know what else to do. If things get any worse, she fears, the next call won’t be her daughter in jail – it will be a coroner.

"To her it was kind of an innocent thing. But it just grew from there."

It started when Pratt’s daughter, M.C., was a teen (RTV6 is identifying her by her initials because Pratt’s daughter declined to participate in this story.). Pratt knew she was using marijuana and sometimes pills but wrote it off as a youthful phase.

But driving that drug use, Pratt now realizes, was an undercurrent of anger, depression and abandonment.

“She came from a broken family,” Pratt said. “It was hard raising her without her father being present to help. I think it started there. She just got into the wrong crowd for relief and comfort. She used drugs as an escape from her problems, I think.”

Pratt realized how serious things had become after the birth of her grandson, C.J.

Melissa Pratt's grandson, C.J., now 6 years old. Pratt shared C.J.'s picture so others can see what the stakes of addiction really are.

C.J.’s father was 10 years older than M.C. He introduced her to harder drugs – heroin, in particular. And he taught her that men would pay money to spend time with her.

“She kinda thought it was an easy way to make money without… she didn’t really think there was much wrong with it because she was just spending 15 minutes talking to someone and she was like, ‘Wow, I got all this money for 15 minutes,’” Pratt said. “To her it was kind of an innocent thing. But it just grew more from there.”

When C.J. was 9 months old, his mother’s drug use had become so out of control that Pratt had to call CPS.

“I just knew for the welfare of the baby I had to do something about it and I had to make sure that I had rights over the child because she wasn’t able to be a good mother to him due to the drug use,” she said.

"She's been kidnapped. She's been raped. She's been attacked by a dog. They found her behind a dumpster with a needle in her arm."

Soon thereafter, M.C. entered a steep, swift, downward spiral. She was arrested for prostitution for the first time on Sept. 4, 2014. She was arrested a month later for a violation of the terms of her bail. Two months after that, an arrest in a second prostitution case. A third prostitution case came in June 2015. As of this writing, Pratt has been arrested 19 times on seven different prostitution cases since the first arrest in 2014.

Each arrest comes with an affidavit – a story of M.C. propositioning undercover officers for sex acts for shockingly low sums of money. Just enough to afford the next hit or two. But the affidavits don’t capture the horrors from the days when M.C. doesn’t wind up in handcuffs.

“She’s been kidnapped. She’s been raped. She’s been attacked by a dog. They found her behind a dumpster with a needle in her arm,” Pratt said. “She's told me stories about waking up with half her clothes on in some place she didn’t know where she was at. It’s just horrifying the things she’s told me, let alone the things I don’t know about. I’m concerned for her. I just feel that if she were in jail she’d be much safer. I think she could get rehabilitation there.”

In an April 10, 2017, letter to M.C.’s judge and prosecutor, Pratt begged them to order her to an in-patient drug treatment facility, or even just to jail.

“I truly felt her life was on the line, and I still do. I fear for her every day,” Pratt said. “I think she would seek rehabilitation if she were given a chance to stay in there for any length of time. I think it might just save her life.”

Below, Melissa Pratt talks about her decision to write a letter to her daughter's judge:

 
 

If you or someone you know are currently being prostituted, resources are available. Contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or visit their website here.

A Breath of Hope

“How to help someone who doesn’t want help?” Robin Parsons says, mulling over the question just asked of her.

Parsons, the chief clinical officer at Fairbanks Alcohol & Drug Addiction Treatment Center in Indianapolis, has dedicated her three-decade career to the fight against addiction. A licensed mental health and addiction counselor, Parsons has faced some of the most challenging rehabilitation cases addiction offers. Cases like M.C.’s.

“Sometimes an intervention will work,” Parsons says. “Sometimes just not enabling them financially or just setting really clear boundaries and helping them experience the consequences earlier on in the addiction will be enough to set the stage for someone getting help on their own voluntarily. But sometimes the addiction gets so severe than an intervention isn’t going to actually work, and you have to go to these more drastic stages like forcibly using the criminal justice system or forcibly detaining someone against their will in some way or another through a detention or incarceration.”

Robin Parsons, MS, LMHC, LCAC, CTRS, ADS

Parsons says she finds people struggle to understand why addicts continue destructive patterns of behavior. It’s because, she says, the addicted mind has been rewired by the drug.

“People don’t understand why they would continue to engage in behaviors that are so self-destructive. Why don’t they make different choices?” Parsons said. “Unfortunately, one of the things that you lose with the disease of addiction is the ability to make rational choices. So their choice, their freedom to make choice is lost, and all of their behaviors essentially become how to obtain, use, recover from use and start that cycle again.”

Below, Robin Parsons discusses addiction in the age of opioids, and what signs parents should look for:

 
 

Treating the addiction is only one piece of the puzzle, though. Once detoxed, a patient suffering from a substance-use disorder often has underlying problems waiting just below the surface.

One of the most common untreated issues with patients at Fairbanks, Parsons said, is trauma. Trauma is the word mental health professionals use to describe the emotional response to extremely negative life events – like being assaulted or raped. Untreated trauma can manifest in panic attacks or nightmares, insomnia, depression, and can drive those suffering from it to self-medicate with drugs.

“Trauma is a very, very difficult thing, a very, very painful thing to endure. So a lot of women – men too, but in this case we’re talking about women – use substances to medicate that emotional pain,” Parsons said. “It’s probably very painful for her not to be using drugs – emotionally very painful. Why would you want to feel that type of pain? How could you believe that you would ever recover from that?”

Despite all of that, Parsons said she’s seen patients who started almost unbelievably low eventually climb over the mountain of addiction and reach recovery. That’s the message she says she would want to give to M.C.

“My great closing line is, ‘Where there’s breath, there’s hope,’” she said. “I’ve seen people recover from unimaginable trauma, serious, long-term addiction, we’ve had cases where people have been incarcerated multiple times, they’ve lost children, they’ve seen things that are unimaginable, and they’ve recovered. So, as always, we say, ‘Where there’s breath, there’s hope.’”

Fairbanks offers a trauma curriculum specifically designed for women called the Origins program. Information about the program can be found online here, or via phone at 317-572-9377.

Waiting for the Light

M.C.’s son C.J. turned six this year. Pratt and her husband finalized their adoption of him several months ago.

“He’s doing really well. He knows his mother, but he hasn’t seen her in over two years, almost three years, so he’s kind of forgetting a little,” Pratt said. “We’re doing the best we can to just be honest with him in a way he can deal with, and just give him as much love and support and give him that family she never really had.”

For Pratt, C.J. is a constant reminder not to give up on her daughter.

“When I look at her son, I see her. That’s my little girl,” Pratt said. “He looks just like her.”

"I would want to tell her that I love her, and I wouldn't judge her. It's not too late for her to get out of this."

Pratt says she decided to tell her daughter’s story in the hopes of reaching her, but also in hopes that other parents will learn to see the warning signs she didn’t. And she wants parents not to look at drug use as a harmless phase.

“Marijuana, Xanax, these things people think are harmless… they aren’t harmless,” she said. “The best thing to do is just stay away. Don’t subject yourself to something like that. Because I never thought this could happen to my daughter.”

While this story was being written, M.C. was picked up on a warrant for a probation violation. At her most recent court hearing, the judge sentenced her to 180 days on home detention. But she hasn’t yet been released from jail, and Pratt doesn’t know if she’ll stick to the judge’s order. In the meantime, she’s written another letter to Judge Nelson. And she offered this message for her daughter, in the hopes that she would read it.

“I would want to tell her that I love her, and I wouldn’t judge her,” Pratt said. “It’s not too late for her to get out of this. We will help her. She can make it. She can do it. But she needs help. And she needs to be willing to do it.”

If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction, help is available from the following resources:

Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center (317-849-8222)

Indiana Addiction Hotline (1-800-662-4357)

Indiana Opioid Treatment Program (317-232-7800)

This article is the fourth in a series documenting the sex trade in Indianapolis. Catch up on the previous stories below:

PART I: ‘Becoming Carmen’ | Sex work took her name, then everything else. Now she helps women take life back.

PART II: ‘Dear John’ | When men buy sex, it’s the women who pay for it.

PART III: ‘Running Blind’ | IMPD arrests first suspected pimp in 7 months.

 

Jordan Fischer is the Senior Digital Reporter for RTV6. He writes about crime & the underlying issues that cause it. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @Jordan_RTV6 or on Facebook.