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Cotton kids

"Cotton kids" Continued...

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

Another difference between COTN and most government-funded groups: COTN doesn’t try to take formal custody of children from their parents. “A lot of parents are not bad, they just have so many heavy issues that they need to figure out themselves,” Lee said. Each week the case manager sets up phone calls home, and as relationships improve, the children are allowed home visits.

On the day of my visit, the girls took a break from class and flopped down on couches surrounding a TV. A bright mural hangs over the couches, next to a row of computers and a cabinet piled high with board games. Only a printed list of forbidden TV shows and movies—Sunset Strip, MSNBC Sex Slaves, COPS, any talk show—gives clues to what its inhabitants are trying to forget.

Lee says that after 35 years, people now talk more openly about prostitution but law enforcement still drags its feet. FBI stings and pimp tracking on the internet are rarely successful. Pimps are difficult to prosecute and often end up back on the street. Mistrust between prostitutes and police is high, and many women return to their pimps after being “rescued.” 

BACK TO THE BOOKS: A student works in the center’s classroom.
Anacleto Rapping/Genesis
BACK TO THE BOOKS: A student works in the center’s classroom.
AT FIRST LEE FOUND IT HARD TO interest people in funding her work. She shied away from government money because of its stifling rules and regulations. She said she knows better than government bureaucrats how best to spend the money that comes in. Even if she was inclined to accept federal money, it wouldn’t work well with her clients: The government typically gives money per head per month, but child prostitutes often run away, making it difficult to keep money flowing in.

Yet surviving off private donations means Lee is always throwing fundraisers, speaking to groups, networking, and writing grant applications. Every time she walks into a hair or dentist appointment, she walks out with more volunteers to help the shelter’s children. Money often comes in through wills and trusts, and the AIDS epidemic prompted a lot of donations.

COTN has also had a strange bedfellow: Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who normalized the commodification of women by popularizing pornography.

What to make of that? It’s true that at a time conservative funders had never heard of Lee, Hefner funded and ran ads for COTN, and got a documentary made about her. The Playboy Foundation grants to COTN have been a great investment for him, leading to oodles of positive press and a “Hero of the Heart Award” from COTN. Hefner introduced Lee to wealthy celebrities like Johnny Carson, who ended up giving millions over the years, and Lee has reciprocated with over-the-top laud: “You have been a saint to countless American children who had nowhere else to turn to for help.”

Sitting in her office with framed certificates lining the wall, Lee ticks off her responsibilities as executive director: picking bugs out of a girl’s hair, paying for the girls’ complete medical and psychological care, creating a shelter security system, paying for around-the-clock staffing, and ensuring each girl gets individualized education. Lee remains “on call” any time of the night or day through a remote video system installed on her computer. None of that is possible without funding, so Lee also has to solicit donations and make it possible for donors to visit the shelter and see exactly where their money is going.

“People walk in, they see my office and go, ‘I want to be you,’” Lee said with a laugh. But those who know her see a different story. “My lawyer said to me, ‘Who would want your life?’ … There’s no elevator, you have to take the stairs.”

Lee says many people talk about creating similar shelters in other cities. She’s met people who have passion but lack the qualifications or understanding to make a shelter work. Sometimes they lack the funding to build an adequate shelter or to earn the needed certifications. She’s seen government-funded shelters with fancy brochures and nicely designed websites, but they won’t let her visit their facilities: “Why would I send a 12-year-old to a place I can’t see?”

She’s also seen firsthand how quickly something can go wrong. Once while on vacation, she received a call from a frazzled staffer. A girl had gotten upset, picked up a computer, and swung it by the cord—destroying everything in the room. By remote video intercom, Lee told staff members how to deal with the girl and instructed them to call the police. But in their panic, the staff forgot Lee’s emergency script that gets police to the shelter in three minutes. Instead, it took 45 minutes before the cops showed up. By then the girl had inflicted $20,000 worth of damage.

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