LOS ANGELES — Teenagers who run away from home can fall into the hands of a pimp or gang and be sold for prostitution. But, for 35 years, a Los Angeles-based charity called Children of the Night has helped young girls, and sometimes boys, escape a life on the streets.
Their backgrounds are similar. They tend to come from troubled and sometimes abusive homes, then get involved with the wrong kind of friends.
For 16-year-old Sarah, the brush with prostitution happened a year ago. Her mother was a drug addict, and Sarah was sent to foster homes. She ran away, and a girl she considered a friend sold her to a pimp.
“I really thought I could trust her. She was like, okay. We need to make money somehow because we don't have jobs and we need a place to live. And she was, like, I can steal from people, and you're really pretty. And right then I was, like, oh, I know what that means,” said Sarah.
Sarah says she had one client and then ran to a nearby shop pleading for help. The police were called and referred her to the Los Angeles-based charity Children of the Night.
At its center, girls and sometimes boys can get counseling, and an education. Some of the teens live at the center while they're being helped. The group's founder, Lois Lee, says things have changed since she started this work 35 years ago.
“Prostitution's been moved off the streets, because of violence on the streets because of guns, and so a lot of it has gone to Internet advertising,” said Lee.
In response to criticism, the website Craigslist stopped running online ads for adult services in 2010. One site that still runs them has formed an unlikely alliance with Children of the Night. Backpage.com is now alerting its users to the problem of underage prostitutes.
Elizabeth McDougall, an attorney for Backpage, defends the site's ads for adult services.
“The Internet is global, and the content will not go away. It will just go offshore. And when it goes offshore, you lose the ability to access that evidence to rescue the kids and to convict the perpetrators,” said McDougall.
McDougall says workers for the website also block ads that suggest abuse of children, then forward the information to a national center that helps minors who have been abused.
Local police once viewed these teenagers as criminals, but not today, says detective Andre Dawson of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“We don't look at these girls as being prostitutes. We rescue these girls and we understand the dynamics of them being victims. And that's one of things that we're trying to provide training through the rest of the state, and quite frankly, the rest of the country,” said Dawson.
For Sarah, finishing high school could open the door to college. In the meantime, she says that she's thriving in her new environment.
“They got me clothes, they feed me, I have a roof over my head, and it really brought out my self-worth,” she said.
Sarah hopes to study art and follow in the footsteps of thousands who have come through here and gone on to have families and careers.