Child prostitutes are escaping life on the streets with help from a Los Angeles charity called Children of the Night. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the group has helped thousands of youngsters in the 27 years since it was founded.
It all started with a research project by Lois Lee, who was pursuing her doctorate in sociology. She studied police reports on prostitution arrests, and monitored court cases. "And in those court cases, I met many young prostitutes, and two were killed by a serial murderer known as the Hillside Strangler, which just catapulted me into street life," she said.
That was at the height of the 1970s youth culture, when hundreds of thousands of teenagers left home for the big city, and often themselves living on the streets. Some turned to prostitution, or were forced into it by pimps. Survival was difficult, and Lee says there were few social agencies to help them. "And so they would ask me for help and there was no place to put them. There were no programs, and so I allowed them to come to my home. And from 1979 to about 1981, over 250 children came through my apartment," she said.
Lee eventually opened a drop-in center for street kids in Hollywood, where they had come to search for a better life, enticed by the glamorous entertainment industry. Instead, they found poverty, abuse and drug addiction. In 1992, Children of the Night opened a group home in suburban Los Angeles, where the youngsters could find safety and shelter.
Lee says many of these children were abused at home, often by drug-addicted parents. She adds that others in the community are also responsible for their exploitation, including the adults they dealt with on the streets. "When you look around at the kinds of people who have sex with these children, they are schoolteachers and police officers and lawyers and accountants and priests and rabbis, and I don't want to leave anybody out. Children look around and that's been their experience with their own families and the people that most of us are taught to look up to, to respect. So they think that's what the world wants of them," she said.
The children and teens, both male and female, receive counseling and attend classes. Sonia Ventura, the principal and head teacher of the shelter's in-house school, has worked at the school for 13 years, and enjoys the challenge. "I think my primary goal as an instructor is to get them to believe in themselves. And once they believe in themselves, I have to find what they like, what they enjoy, and mold everything in that direction," she said.
The teacher says the students participate in regional science fairs, and are given the chance to finish school. She says the children, some as young as 11, are accustomed to failure, but are unfamiliar with praise for their successes. "I remember one time when I commended one of my students, and she just started sobbing. She didn't know what to do with the compliment I had given her. So that's why they stay here, because they see that this place can change their life, they can accomplish things, and they've seen what other kids have done in the past," she said.
There are many success stories here. One former prostitute who came at age 13 is studying at a nearby university.
Lee says others have gone on to become office workers and nurses. Others are less successful and some, unfortunately, end up back on the streets. Lee says thousands of U.S. children are still engaged in prostitution.
She says Americans know of the trafficking of children in other countries, but can be blind to the plight of children on the streets of U.S. cities. "When you're talking about other parts of the world, you're talking about organized crime, you're talking about political corruption, you're talking about economic dependence, sometimes on tourism, and politicians and people that can make change look the other way for the economic security of the country. But child prostitution is America's dirty little secret, too," she said.
Between 55 and 300 youngsters stay at the center each year, some for a few months and others until their 18th birthday. Later, they may move in with foster families or into a college dormitory. When conditions are good at home, they may be reunited with their families.
Others get assistance to live independently as they make the transition to adulthood. Lee says the organization maintains ties with the children who have stayed here, providing continued support through their adult years.