Teenage prostitutes in the United States can escape life on the streets with help from a Los Angeles charity, called Children of the Night. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, the group has helped thousands of youngsters since it was founded.
For 27 years, Children of the Night has helped young prostitutes find shelter and get away from life on the streets.
It 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 when I went out on the streets to verify what I found on police reports, and found myself in the middle... of a serial murder investigation, and caught the guys, and coordinated many of the young prostitutes to testify against these pimps who had actually killed many girls, and [I] found myself just in their world," she said.
Many teenagers who find themselves on the streets were victims of sexual abuse at home before they became prostitutes. Lee says their customers come from all walks of life.
"Laborers, truck drivers, salesmen, attorneys, accountants, cops, ministers, rabbis, priests, movie stars, lawyers - I don't want to leave anybody out," she said. "One of the things that traps children involved in prostitution is the fact that it looks like everybody's involved in it."
At a residential center in suburban Los Angeles, run by Children of the Night, the former prostitutes find safe haven. They also get a chance to finish their education.
"When our students come here, they don't really believe in themselves," explained Sonia Ventura, school principal at the shelter. "They don't feel like they can accomplish things. And I think it's a big thing when they can accomplish something. They can complete a science project, an essay for the first time. A lot of our students have never written an essay, and here, they do write one, and they feel a great sense of accomplishment."
After a time at the shelter, some students return home. Others move in with foster families, or get their own apartment. Yet others go on to college.
Lois Lee says among those who have passed through the program, there are hundreds of success stories, in every walk of life - as well as some tragedies.
"Many of them are schoolteachers. Some of them are public relations consultants. Many are married and have children, and some are dying of AIDS," she said. "And to us, it's unconditional support [that we give], regardless of whether we have to hold their hand while they're dying of AIDS, or we're helping them with books and schools supplies, or to deal with contemporary problems in their new lives."
Lois Lee says child prostitution is America's dirty little secret, and too little attention is being paid to the problem. She says, here, at least, young people find refuge from life on the streets.