Life on the streets is brutal for U.S. teenage runaways, some of whom are lured into prostitution. Agencies that help them say the problem persists in Los Angeles and other American cities. Our correspondent spoke with two teenagers who are turning their lives around at a charity called Children of the Night.
At Children of the Night, a 14-year-old girl who calls herself Monica has found refuge. Raised in the city of Oakland, she lived with a friend of her mother's, whose boyfriend started molesting her when she was four. Authorities intervened and placed the girl with a foster family, who later adopted her. But Monica ran away repeatedly, starting at age 10, and turned to prostitution at the urging of her older boyfriend.
"I prostituted since I was 10-years-old," said Monica. "The first time I ran away from home, it was with this guy. He was 17 and I told him that I was 15. And I decided I wanted to leave because I lost my virginity the day before that, so I thought, OK, let me just run the streets. And having sex was fun, so I just thought it would be fun, but it was not."
She returned home but ran away again and got involved with other pimps, who tutored her in the business. By the age of 12, she was a regular on the streets of Oakland.
Monica looks a little older than her 14 years, but she says that her customers, or tricks, clearly understood she was a child.
"I guess they didn't care," she said. "One trick I had hopped in the car with when I was in Oakland, I told him that I was 12 years old. He said, oh, it doesn't matter. I'll give you extra money."
Most youngsters come to Children of the Night after they are arrested. Monica was arrested on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, the place where she had encounters with men in their cars.
Police gave her two options.
"They asked me, did I want to come back to Children of the Night, or jail? But I chose Children of the Night, because I knew that they can help me," said Monica.
Another girl, who asks to be called Amanda, is from Seattle. Her mother was a drug addict who died this year from an overdose. Amanda lived with her father, and was sexually abused by her father's roommate. From ages eight to twelve, she underwent counseling, and then she started getting into trouble.
"Everybody was saying I was acting like my mom," said Amanda. "And I started doing all these drugs and I started to have sex and hanging out with the bad people."
At 14, she met a man in his mid-30s, who persuaded her to run away from home.
"He told me he loved me, and he really got inside my head," she said. "And then he said he was going to another state. And I said OK."
She was soon in another city, selling herself on the street - on the track, as she calls it - the stretch of street where she routinely worked. She gave her earnings to the pimp, who would often beat her.
"He made me make a schedule for myself. I think it was 11 [a.m.] to 7 [p.m.], I would work one track," said Amanda. "And I would take a break from 7 to 9, and then at 9 to 2, I would work a different track, 9 to 2 at night. And every time I made $300, I would have to call him and give it to him. I would make an average of 600 or 700 [dollars] a day."
But the pimp became more violent. He once threatened her as they spoke by cell phone.
"He was like, I'm going to kill you as soon as you hit that street," she said. "I'm coming for you and I'm going to kill you. I mean, he had put a gun to me before, but tonight I really believed that he was really going to kill me."
She was arrested that night, which she says may have saved her life. Federal agents came to her detention center and offered her the chance to go to Children of the Night.
With 17 other girls, she now attends school at the Los Angeles charity, does her homework and socializes with friends, who like her are runaways and former prostitutes. Monica and Amanda have plans to go college after they finish high school.
Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, says they can do it. Thousands of children, both male and female, have found help here over 30 years and are now leading successful lives. Some get jobs when they turn 18. Others finish their education. Some return to the streets.
Lee says child prostitution has changed in some ways over the decades. Most teenagers on the street now carry cell phones, and their pimps advertise on the Internet sites like Craigslist. But she says the abuse is the same as it was decades ago.
She says law enforcement agencies want to help, but the children are caught between two conflicting needs: to prosecute the pimps, using the children as witnesses, and to find a safe haven for the children.
Lee would like to see a focus on prosecuting customers.
"Let's look at who most of the men are who are paying for sex," said Lois Lee. "They're family men. They're so-called law-abiding citizens. They have jobs. They pay taxes. They range from truck drivers, laborers, to salesmen, to professionals, accountants and lawyers and policemen and judges and politicians. You name it. Everybody's involved."
Earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation rescued more than 45 suspected teenage prostitutes in a nationwide sweep of 27 cities. No one knows the extent of the problem, but Lee says children continue to sell themselves on the streets of American cities.
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