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Little Girls Lost

Hundreds of thousands of girls will run away from home and become victims of horrific circumstances. Here’s what you can do to be sure it doesn’t happen to you or someone you know.

Enter a classroom at Children of the Night, a 24-bed home in Los Angeles, and you’ll find a sea of bright faces. It’d be easy to mistake this for an ordinary all-girls high school. But, in reality, these girls are bravely struggling to find their way to a normal life. They all have been rescued from the streets after surviving as teen prostitutes—girls who have sex with strangers for money.

Chelsea, an intelligent 16-year-old, long-haired brunette with a doll-like face is one of these girls. She still has nightmares of her time walking the streets of L.A. “I’m still afraid of my pimp [a man who profits from the abuse and exploitation of a girl’s body], but I’ll never let him get to me again,” says Chelsea, who now lives at Children of the Night which provides shelter, food, clothing, schooling and emotional support to girls ages 11 to 17 who’ve escaped the street life. Chelsea was only 14 when she began prostituting.

Each year, there are 2.8 million runaways—and a staggering one in three of those ends up in prostitution. Matter of fact, an estimated 300,000 kids are working the streets right now. And, according to the FBI, the average age of a new prostitute is 13. Why are so many young girls ending up victims of sexual exploitation?

ESCAPING A TROUBLED HOME
There are many reasons a teen may decide to run away—family problems, emotional abuse, neglect, drugs, the death of a parent, school issues. But, sadly, around 80 percent of girls who run away have been the victims of sexual of physical abuse in their homes.

In fact, experts have estimated that 90 percent of prostitutes are survivors of abuse. And, shockingly, that figure is probably too low since many kids are ashamed to admit they are or have been abused.

While very painful for her to discuss, Chelsea explains that her extremely violent home life was the reason she ended up on the streets. “My little brother and I were constantly physically and emotionally abused by my father. I’d try and take [my brother’s] whippings for him so he wouldn’t get hurt,” she says. Chelsea was only 9 when her mother died.

Why didn’t Chelsea tell someone what was going on at home? “I didn’t know anything else. I thought that’s how all kids were treated.” And it’s not like she could go out at 14 and get a job to escape her home environment.

A myth is that this only happens to girls from poor backgrounds. The majority are from middle-class families. “We recently had a case of a girl whose parents owned a very successful restaurant. These kids come from anywhere and everywhere in the country,” says LAPD Detective Keith Haight.

Dr. Lois Lee, founder and president of Children of the Night, agrees that some of the girls come from loving homes. “We had a girl from a gated community and a good family, but she was molested [by a non-family member] at 14. After that, her self-esteem was so low. She thought she was ‘damaged.’”

RUNNING AWAY FROM RUNNING AWAY
“People think these girls chose this life,” says Haight, “but that isn’t true. From our point of view, this is slavery.”

Chelsea was locked in a motel with no phone and nothing to do but wait for customers with the other girls. “For five months, I could never go out to the store, park, mall, nowhere. And if you tried to get away, you were beaten or you’d be killed,” Chelsea recounts.

“These pimps wait for young [runaway] girls at the bus station,” explains Haight. “Luckily, [if they’re] loitering for the purpose of prostitution, we can arrest them and get them help. It’s sad, but being arrested may be the only way for girls to get out of ‘the game.’”

Dr. Lee suggests another solution: “Rather than get arrested, if a girl wants help, she should call our confidential hotline. We know how to get them out, and we’ll pick them up immediately.”

But Chelsea didn’t know about Children of the Night. “I’d thought about leaving,” she says, “but I was way too scared of what he’d do to me. But he took all of his girls to Las Vegas, and one night, he left me alone on the street because he was mad at me for not making the $1,000 he needed. I was so cold and hadn’t slept, and suddenly, I just started running and running. I remember being so scared he would shoot me.”

A NEW BEGINNING!
Chelsea was arrested and flown back to L.A. to stay at Children of the Night. After adjusting to her new home, Chelsea felt she had the support and care she needed to get her life back on track.

“I love being able to sleep at night, because I hadn’t for so long,” says
Chelsea. “Children of the Night made me feel so welcome. They taught me that how I was treated at home and by the people on the street was not OK.” Now, less than a year later, Chelsea is still at the facility and has earned a high school diploma. She has a job at a gift shop and is planning a military career.

Chelsea chokes up as she tells us she feels certain that she’ll never go back to street life. “I have a lot of support now—and my brother and I are best friends,” she says. “I’ve learned at the Children of the Night that I can have a good life and that even though I still struggle with forgiving myself, I deserve a good life.
 
By: Sandy Fertman Ryan

INSTEAD OF RUNNING AWAY...
 
Over 5,000 runaways die each year on the street. There are safer alternatives to taking off on your own.…

Talk to a trusted adult or if there isn’t anyone you can confide in, speak to a school counselor to get help.
Call a local youth shelter You can find them in the Yellow Pages or through the resources listed below.

Helplines are the best option if you or a friend is considering running away. They will provide resources, or even help put you in a safe environment—no matter what city you’re in. Call any of them toll-free 24/7, anonymously and confidentially:
 

National Runaway Switchboard 1-800-RUNAWAY
Girls and Boys Town National Hotline 1-800-448-3000
Children of the Night 1-800-551-130

POSTED ON 2/18/2010 11:36:00 AM

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