Kimberly Sevcik visits a groundbreaking refuge for teenage prostitutes to find out how yoga classes and manicures keep them off the street.
With its yoga classes, vegetarian lunch options, and field trips to posh salons, Children of the Night seems like an all-inclusive resort. It's not. It's a shelter for teen prostitutes.Sarah landed on the doorstep of Children of the Night less than 24 hours ago, and even though the other kids there barely know her, they're throwing her a birthday party. Birthday parties are a ritual at Children of the Night, and rituals are important to a young girl who has known nothing but uncertainty in her life. A dozen girls burst into the cafeteria bearing turquoise crepe tablecloths and festive plastic dinnerware. They prance around the room, taping clusters of balloons to the walls, reserving a few to stuff down their shirts.A big-boned girl with tattooed biceps is pacing the room restlessly. She seems bored, or disgusted, or a little of both. "I hate birthdays," she says, casting a withering glance at one of the other girls, who is standing on her tiptoes, taping a trio of balloons to a bulletin board where the week's vegetarian menu options are displayed. "Birthdays suck."Among the current batch of kids at the Children of the Night-and it does seem to shift slightly every week-Lily is the alpha dog. She is bigger and louder than the other girls, and tougher, too. She has tawny skin and spiky eyelashes and a blunt, upturned nose. A scar runs from her inner elbow down to her wrist. She doesn't like to talk about its origins.On her last birthday, Lily turned 17 while locked up in a juvenile prison in Las Vegas, Nevada. She had been working as a prostitute in Vegas when she got busted for soliciting on the Strip. She was thrown in jail for ten months. Jail was awful, a violent place where days were spent plotting your survival and nights were spent counting your regrets. But getting arrested: that was a good thing. Lily doesn't have any regrets about that.Getting sent to Children of the Night is one of the best things that could happen to a teenager coming off the streets. Girls who get arrested for prostitution make special requests to be sent there. Until about five years ago, COTN was the only shelter in the country dedicated to serving children coming out of prostitution. Most children who got arrested for prostitution were placed in group homes, which can be particularly hard on former prostitutes. "As soon as it becomes known in a group home that a girl was working on the streets, she becomes known as a bad girl, a ho," says Carol Smolenski, the executive director of ECPAT USA, which works to prevent trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. What makes COTN different, she says, is that its founder, Lois Lee."[Lee] was way ahead of her time in recognizing that these kids can't be mixed in with a bunch of other kids who don't understand what they've been through," Smolenski says. "They need psychological services to help them build up their self-esteem. They need to learn that they have value beyond their use as a prostitute."As the issue of child prostitution has come under scrutiny, even officials in the justice system and law enforcement have begun to understand the importance of attending to the particular needs of former prostitutes. "For years, kids who prostituted were perceived as criminals and they were treated that way," says Smolenski. "No one thought of them as victims, so they didn't see the impetus to create programs intended to help them."
|Lois Lee understands that you have to talk to these kids like adults; you can't be too soft, or they will bulldoze you. They won't respect you.|
|A girl might walk out of here in the middle of the night and go back to the streets. But will she call me from the hospital if she is dying with AIDS? Yes. And I will go to her and sit by her bed and hold her hand.|
GIRLS Children of the Night has some male child prostitutes, but the vast majority are female.