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INVESTED: Dr. Lois Lee talks with a shelter resident.
Anacleto Rapping/Genesis
INVESTED: Dr. Lois Lee talks with a shelter resident.

Cotton kids

Human Trafficking | With no government funding, Lois Lee has made Children of the Night a haven for young women fleeing prostitution

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

Wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey and a shy smile, 16-year-old Sarah from the Midwest (name changed for protection) calmly tells me how a “so-called best friend” introduced her to a pimp who threatened her into prostitution and plied her with drugs. Through the intervention of her mother, police, and a court advocate, Sarah flew to Los Angeles and found a new home at Children of the Night (COTN), a shelter for 11- to 17-year-old ex-prostitutes.

Children of the Night is not a Christian organization, but Christians can learn from its executive director, Lois Lee, and her 35 years of working with young women and men in trouble: She’s rescued more than 10,000 children from prostitution, and sent 100 of them to college. She’s developed a nationwide law enforcement network that helps prostitutes who call COTN’s 24-hour hotline. And she knows what it takes to run a 24-bed shelter that provides psychological help, education, and security—all without government support.

Sarah told me her story as Lee listened in and occasionally interrupted: Stop calling the man “my pimp,” she said. Call him “a pimp” to create distance between you. “You don’t want to be that close, right?” Sarah agreed and was careful not to use the possessive pronoun again. She’s benefited from COTN’s strict schedule and on-site school: After four months she is getting clean, is on track to earn her high-school diploma, and plans to go to college to become a certified nurse assistant: “I never thought that I’d be able to make it and finish school.”

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Lee’s work with child prostitutes began in the 1970s as she did research for her doctoral dissertation. By going through arrest records she discovered that police officers typically arrested prostitutes but not their customers, so she decided to sue the department for discrimination. As she interviewed and befriended prostitutes, they started turning to her with their problems.

One night in 1977, Lee received a call from a prostitute who said her friend had gone to meet with a client and had not returned. Lee tried but couldn’t get the police to care about a missing hooker. The next day the girl’s body was found, murdered by the Hillside Strangler, who killed 10 women in a four-month period. Outraged, Lee went on national TV and asked sex workers to call her if they had information, and she included her phone number. Her phone started ringing with tips that led to the capture of the two men behind the stranglings.

After the Strangler case, Lee continued receiving phone calls—many about child prostitutes. When Lee looked into government services, she found the children were falling through the cracks: Social services wouldn’t take them in because prostitution is a crime, and the juvenile court wouldn’t detain them with common criminals because they didn’t commit a crime against property.

With nowhere to turn, Lee from 1979 through 1981 opened up her home to 250 child prostitutes. Some ended up back on the streets, but others left their pimps and old lifestyles behind. Businessmen who heard about the work Lee was doing gave her the money to open a drop-in center in Hollywood. That allowed more kids to come for showers, food, and clothes. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan took notice, honoring her at the White House with the President’s Volunteer Action Award.

COTN NOW SITS IN A SPANISH-STYLE building in Van Nuys, a majority-Hispanic suburb in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. The building’s signage is discrete. Security cameras and a buzzer system at the front door protect against pimps trying to reclaim their livelihood. A young woman at the front desk answers the center’s 24/7 hotline, receiving calls from prostitutes all across the country. The scripted emergency response aims to get the child away from the pimp and the help of nearby police to come and pretend to arrest the child.

Some COTN residents, like Sarah, come via court advocates and law enforcement. Others find the hotline number through ads on an online classified section where prostitutes sell their services. As Lee walks down halls lined with the names of children who have finished high school or received GEDs, she compares the shelter to a middle-class boarding school. The residents share a bedroom with one other person, attend class during the day, eat in the dining hall, and meet with case managers who arrange for medical and counseling appointments.

In the evenings they attend workshops that range from yoga to arts and crafts. One girl told me she most enjoyed the time a backup dancer for Justin Bieber came and taught the girls a dance routine. On the weekends they take trips to the aquarium and roller rink. Some attend church on Sundays and play softball. Unlike government-funded programs, COTN allows participants to stay not for just 21 days but as long as they want. Most stay until they get their high-school diploma, have a place to stay, and are on a path toward a career. About 30 percent of those who start the program end up back on the street.

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