LOS ANGELES— The Los Angeles charity Children of the Night helps teenage prostitutes turn their lives around and get an education. Many say their problems began at home, and they got little help from teachers and others around them.
Alyssa, who is now 15, was exposed to violence and drug use from an early age. When she was 14, she stayed with her older sister for the weekend. Her sister and her friends used a drug called crystal meth, a powerful form of methamphetamine. They forced Alyssa to try it.
“They needed a way to make money so that they could get more drugs and be able to do something over the weekend. So they made me take nude pictures and they made a trick come over,” Alyssa said.
Alyssa says the trick, her first customer, paid for oral sex.
Her sister then introduced Alyssa to a pimp, who put her to work as a prostitute. She later returned home but was lured back to the streets, and her sister introduced her to a second pimp.
“He forced me to turn tricks in the hotel room all day. I couldn't leave, I couldn't eat, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't talk to my family any more,” Alyssa said.
An arrest would lead Alyssa to the charity Children of the Night. She is now doing well in school and hopes to become a doctor.
Los Angeles Police Department vice officer Shaun King encounters girls like Alyssa in his investigations into human trafficking. He works with Children of the Night to get them help. He says their pimps are street-smart manipulators and that they know how to control a vulnerable teenager who needs support and approval.
“She's just got that multiplied times 10 because of her background. So she latches onto him and he manipulates that. And ultimately, after a short amount of time of grooming her, he'll open her up to the idea that she's got to contribute to help them make it in the world,” King said.
Amber, who is 17, grew up in a stable home but became a heavy user of methamphetamine. She ran away from home repeatedly and teamed up with a pimp to became a prostitute. They advertised for customers on an Internet site, listing her phone number.
“They would contact my phone and I would answer. And I would have to talk to them and figure out prices, and then he would drive me to their house and he would stay there to make sure I was OK,” Amber said.
She says her pimp was not violent, as many are, and she believed he loved her.
“One day, I just kept on telling him, 'we need to stop. Can't we just be normal? Can't we just be together? Can you love me for who I am? I don't want to do this any more.' He was like, 'No, it's OK, it's OK. Everything's going to be fine,' and just would assure me that everything was OK, but I kept on telling him, 'let's stop.' And that day I told him to stop, that's when we got caught,” Amber said.
Amber learned of Children of the Night from federal agents who detained her and arrested her pimp. He is serving a sentence of 10 years in prison.
The charity now provides a home for 19 teenagers. It has an on-site school and some students have competed in statewide science fairs and won academic honors. Children of the Night founder Lois Lee says that each year, a number continue on to college.
“Many of our children do turn their lives around. Some of them are professionals. Some of them are teachers running inner city schools. Some of them work in public relations. Some of them work as executives in other corporations,” Lee said.
Several are now attending law school.
Lee says the problems for most begin at an early age, with physical and sexual abuse.
“These children were sexually abused at the hands of their first caregivers, and until we do something about that issue, we're not going to do anything about child prostitution,” Lee said.
For teens like Amber, a safe atmosphere has made the difference. She has made friends with kids who are overcoming similar problems.
“We are pretty much all the same and we can look at each other and look up to each other and make sure that we're all doing well. We bond like a family,” Amber said.
Amber says she now has a good relationship with her own family.
Alyssa's home life was more turbulent, filled with drugs and violence.
“And I don't believe that I got the support that I needed as a kid,” Alyssa said.
She says teachers and counselors ignored the warning signs, even after learning of drug use and prostitution in her family.
Amber says the atmosphere in her home was better, but that police and social workers should also have intervened as she ran away from home and started getting into trouble. Both girls say they are now getting the support they need and that they look forward to a better future.