By Gabe Duverge
The poverty rate in the United States is 14.8 percent, based on the latest data from the Census Bureau. Almost 47 million Americans have an annual household income that falls below the poverty line, which is about $24,000 for a family of four. The statistics are even higher in Kentucky.
At 18.8 percent, the poverty rate in Kentucky is the fifth highest in the country. The percentages rise dramatically among women, children and minorities.
- 26 percent of children live in poverty (10th in the nation).
- 7 percent of working-age women live in poverty (second in the nation).
- 7 percent of Asian-Americans live in poverty.
- 3 percent of African-Americans live in poverty.
- 1 percent of Latinos live in poverty.
Clearly, Kentucky struggles with poverty. That’s why many social initiatives are answering the call to address this complex problem.
Major Issues Affecting the Poor
According to Feeding America, one of every six Kentuckians faces food insecurity, which is defined as a “lack of access at times to enough food for an active, healthy life” and a “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” The household food insecurity rate is 17.2 percent, and the child food insecurity rate is 22.4 percent.
A count by the Kentucky Interagency Council on Homelessness shows that 5,245 Kentuckians are homeless. The actual number of homeless Kentuckians is almost certainly larger, as the data only includes those in shelters and known areas. Homelessness disproportionately affects veterans, people with chronic or mental illnesses, individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction, and victims of domestic violence.
Violence against the poor is a reality. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people living in poverty had more than double the rate of violent victimization, such as sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault, than people in high-income households. This is just one example of the correlation between poverty and crime.
The high number of children living in poverty has a broad impact on education. Kentucky Youth Advocates believes that the statewide educational level of children will not improve at a “sufficient pace” until poverty is addressed. Children affected by poverty are less likely to succeed in school, and they are less likely to pursue a college degree.
Five Social Initiatives Fighting Poverty
Governmental offices, nonprofit groups and charities are all working to help solve the poverty problem in Kentucky. They use a variety of strategies and focus on different aspects of this large issue. The following five initiatives are well-respected and supported by both citizens and the government.
Throughout his second term, President Obama has designated several “promise zones,” which receive federal funds to fight poverty and improve the overall quality of life. Southeastern Kentucky is home to the only rural promise zone, a partnership of eight counties.
KHIC is the lead entity of the promise zone and is using both public and private partnerships to target development in the region. Some priorities include building affordable high-speed Internet, improving drug and alcohol rehabilitation services and bolstering economic development. The group has a 10-year strategic plan to guide its major efforts in the region.
- Sharing Our Appalachian Region (SOAR)
SOAR works to improve the quality of life throughout Appalachian Kentucky. The initiative works with a wide variety of public and private entities to identify opportunities for agriculture development, increasing tourism and improving the well-being of the people in eastern Kentucky. SOAR is an initiative begun in 2013 by the state government and works as a collection of individuals committed to creating change in 10 areas of focus (e.g., business recruitment, education and retraining, health, infrastructure). Members of the SOAR Advisory Council are leaders in their fields and have significant experience working in eastern Kentucky.
SOAR focuses on creating “tangible change” through the awarding of grant money, including $33.2 million in 2015. SOAR also reaches out to state universities to inspire students to help find new solutions that can help move the region forward. Although still young, SOAR is certainly fostering real change in the region.
- Kentucky Interagency Council on Homelessness (KICH)
In the fight to end homelessness in the Bluegrass, KICH leads the way. The group’s mission is to coordinate the many organizations working with the homeless and develop a larger strategy across the state. Started in 2002 by the Kentucky Housing Corporation, KICH has grown to represent 20 agencies, nonprofits and advocacy groups working to help the homeless.
KICH focuses mostly on interagency collaboration. This is especially true in systematic efforts to improve delivery of services. For example, KICH helps groups organize their efforts in the winter as the cold has a substantial impact on the homeless. The group also serves as a representative when policy is developed in Frankfort.
- Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA)
Kentucky Youth Advocates believes that “all children deserve to be safe, healthy and secure.” KYA works to help reduce the number of children living in poverty, mostly through working alongside legislators to improve policy.
In the realm of poverty, KYA is seeking to create a state earned income tax credit (EITC) that would assist working families in making ends meet. KYA also offers assistance to families, including coordinating health and safety services across the state, and works to improve education standards, especially in high-poverty areas.
- Kentucky Association of Food Banks (KAFB)
KAFB is one of the leading nonprofits organizing food banks across the state’s 120 counties. The group partners with seven member food banks to ensure that citizens always have an option to find the food they need. With a network of more than 1,000 food pantries distributing 60.5 million pounds of food annually, the group estimates it reaches one in seven Kentuckians each year.
KAFB offers the Farms to Food Banks program that helps farmers sell excess produce to stock pantries. The No Kid Hungry campaign works to end childhood hunger through increasing access to federal nutrition programs among Kentucky’s children. KAFB also orchestrates food distribution in times of emergency and helps fill the gaps when disaster strikes a region of the state.
Continuing the Fight to End Poverty in Kentucky
Social workers often play a key role in initiatives that benefit the poor. An education in social work provides the skills and knowledge needed for a successful and rewarding career in the profession. Campbellsville University offers an online Bachelor of Social Work degree that is both affordable and convenient. Courses are taught by instructors with years of experience making a difference. Learn more about answering your call to serve others today.
A Call to Action for Social Workers! The Time is Now to ELEVATE
As we recognize March as Social Work Month, let’s awaken that original passion in each other and build on our strengths and core social work values to make change and lead the way for others to do so as well.
My fellow social workers, the time is now to lead the way for our nation regarding human rights and human well-being. The shocking cruelty and violation of human rights that occur each day in our nation under the current administration not only violates our Code of Ethics, but is cruel, unjust, and the epitome of what we as social workers dedicate our lives to fight against—socialinjustice.
We cannot risk becoming desensitized to any injustice, despite hearing about a new, abhorrent policy, practice or incident, every day. Let’s channel our frustration into collective action because this is our domain. We are the experts of social welfare, and we are uniquely trained to recognize social injustice and empower individuals, families, organizations, and communities toward positive social change.
It’s what we do every day as social workers. Since we know how to do this, we should be leading the way. This social work month lets ELELVATE our dedication and translate it into collective action for social justice. I believe that in doing so, we honor of the many pioneer social workers who have blazed the trail for us and worked to give us many of the rights we now enjoy.
Every day I am in awe of our society and our government’s attitudes and policies toward the most vulnerable people in our society. Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia seem to be increasing at alarming rates (or perhaps are just more acceptably overt now) and this is resulting in more violence, conflict, and division among families and communities.
To me, that constitutes an emergency. Children are being legally separated from their parents, put in cages, often abused or neglected and “lost” by our government. If that isn’t an emergency, I’m not sure what is. Banning PEOPLE from serving in the military, sending refugees back to their country of origin to face certain death, and women’s reproductive rights at risk are all emergencies to me.
What do you think? What constitutes a national emergency to you? Whatever you answer, the good news is that we know how to deal with crisis as social workers and are bound together by social workvalues. So, let’s do it. Someone has to, and why not us—this is our domain. Plus, we have a lot of professional strengths to build on.
• We know how to build on strengths.
• We know how to organize.
• We know how to educate.
• We know how to build bridges, not walls.
• We know how to empower individuals, families, organization, and communities.
• We understand human rights and human dignity.
• We know how to advocate on micro through macro levels.
• We know how to push through when we are tired because people’s lives depend on us.
• We understand human behavior more than most.
• We know how to critique social policy.
• We know how to conduct research and translate it into practice.
• We know how to problem solve and are used to complex problems.
• We value diversity and we know how to celebrate it.
As a social work educator, I have the privilege of working with budding social workers every day. Their passion for social justice is raw and strong. However, as some seasoned social workers know, that passion may not go away, but it may grow tired, and frustrated by red tape, high case-loads and lack of support.
My fellow social workers, I ask you to ask yourself: How do you want to use your unique innate gifts and your professional skills as a social worker to help our nation awaken to the humanity of others? We cannot let human suffering being the norm or be a line item on news that people shake their head to and go on about their day. Jane Addams would not approve.
Increased Inmate Deaths and the Lack of Accountability
One year after the death of Sandra Bland on July 13, 2015, the Huffington Post compiled a list of persons who died in jail. In the following twelve month period, there were 811 deaths, most of which were the result of suicide. In fact, 253 detainees committed suicide in the year after Sandra’s death, constituting 31% of all fatalities.
This heartbreaking statistic highlights a historical pattern; one of racial targeting and classism, poor management, health care oversight, and corruption. The criminal justice system fails our communities by allowing preventable inmate deaths while targeting the most vulnerable communities. These alarming trends in our prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers have us wondering, why?
Experts examining suicide and death in our nation’s jails reveal disturbing trends across the most vulnerable communities. A recent New York Times article, for example, Preventing Suicide in America’s Jails, reveals in 2013 a total of 967 jail inmates died while detained in local corrections facilities. This statistic continued to grow the year after, even though the inmate population declined by 4%. Other authors and researchers cite poor management, inadequate health care, and perfunctory oversight as major culprits. Although these issues go mostly unresolved, they continue to institute a pattern of death and suicide.
Reasons Behind Inmate Deaths
Many jail fatalities are overlooked and underreported. Generally, jails are not required to disclose fatalities occurring within their facility to their community. Even the most egregious incarceration centers can go unnoticed by the community at large when they aren’t being held accountable for deaths occurring in their own institutions.
Different from prison, jail stays are shorter (approximately 21 days) and most of the inmates have yet to be sentenced. Jail inmates could also be under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or have mental or physical health issues that correctional staff might be unaware of. For these reasons, many jail suicides occur in the first week of incarceration as indicated below by the Prison Policy Initiative.
According to KyCIR’s reports in Kentucky’s Grant County Jail, rampant corruption, employee incompetence, ineffective staff preparation, and inmate maltreatment were all present in the jail’s culture. In an environment where accountability is minimal, inmates are more likely to be disregarded and mistreated, as is the case of Danny Ray Burden at Grant County Jail.
“Danny Ray Burden fell asleep mid-sentence as he was booked into the Grant County jail, toppling over on the bench where he sat. Prodded awake, he coughed, shook and pleaded for emergency medical attention. A blood test showed that the 41-year-old diabetic badly needed insulin. Instead of assisting with proper medical standards and medications, deputies put Danny Ray in a cell, where he was found unconscious just three hours after he had entered the jail on March 27, 2013. He died a week later.”
Reflecting on the data, including the specific cases of Sandra Bland and Danny Ray Burden, who is at risk for jail fatality?
Vulnerable groups at correctional facilities include:
- Persons booked for lesser crimes
- Those without financial resources who are unable to post bond
- Communities of color who are profiled by police and often receive harsher punishments
- Sex offenders and those accused of vicious crimes
Why Death by Suicide?
For inmates whose lives were previously difficult, a brief jail sentence could prove traumatic. The most at-risk inmates may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms, a lack of access to prescriptions, and/or low availability of medical or mental health services. An inmate with a troubled emotional, mental, or physical state of inmates suffers even more while imprisoned, especially when our system neglects their basic needs.
Correctional facility detainees may have anxiety about unemployment, broken relationships, loss of residence, healthcare, or the inability to care for children. Without financial resources, these issues are compounded by the inability to pay a bond. And for black inmates, especially those in the 18 to 29-year age range, accruing considerably greater bail amounts than their peers in other racial groups isn’t uncommon.
Suicide Prevention Strategies for Correctional Facilities
In Matti Hautala’s article In the Shadow of Sandra Bland: The Importance of Mental Health Screening in U.S. Jails, the author examines the multifaceted environment of our American jail system and garners evidence-based recommendations for inmate suicide prevention.
The author suggests the initial entry procedure, including the preliminary psychological evaluation, acclimates the inmate to the criminal justice environment. This experience could have a lasting impact on the immediate future for that inmate; although alternative programs such as parole, probation, or mental health courts are recommended. Community supervision, rather than incarceration, is especially effective for those with psychological or mental health issues. Further recommendations include:
- Psychological evaluation instruments and qualified evaluators
- Proper procedures regarding medical records and treatment
- Limiting the use of restraint and isolation
- Frequent visual follow-ups, every 15 minutes, with suicidal or homicidal inmates.
The gross lack of culpability by local and state corrections personnel and increasing inmate deaths calls for advocacy and reform. Social workers, helping professionals, and concerned citizens must engage our political and community leaders in evidence-based dialogue and program development to reduce the number of inmate fatalities in our nation’s correctional facilities.
By engaging with our local communities and representatives, together, we can hold our system accountable. We can force our jail and correctional facilities to say “mea culpa!” and reform our policies to prevent tragic and unnecessary death.
Indigenous Women Trapped in Human Trafficking in North America
The subject of human and sex trafficking has been popular in the media recently. From the recent exposure of celebrities involved in trafficking and sex rings to the implementation of SESTA/FOSTA by the Republican party. Headlines focusing on celebrity figures and politicians silences the voice of vulnerable populations who are predominately impacted by human trafficking such as Native and Indigenous women on Reservations across North America.
Human traffickers prey on individuals who are socially oppressed, marginalized within their family and community, and vulnerable due to poverty. These circumstances create the perfect recipe for human traffickers when oil drilling corporations are interested in geographic regions near Reservations.
Corporate America has created the ultimate vehicle and tool for human traffickers to generate a business based on the exploitation of Indigenous girls and women. The scariest aspect of all is that the Johns/potential buyers within the encampment are not utilizing websites like backpage.com or craigslist.com.
Human traffickers are exploiting unsuspecting girls and women by transporting them directly to the oil drilling encampments. In other words, the implementation of SESTA/FOSTA by the Republican party fails to protect Indigenous women, men, and children trapped in human trafficking.
The Indigenous population of North America is 2.5 times more likely to experience violence in comparison to other neighboring populations. The statistics on violence and trauma becomes increasingly alarming because a majority of children on Reservations are exposed to violence before the age of 5. The high rates of violence on Reservations is a result of widespread poverty, Western colonization, and low job employment or opportunities. The impact of poverty and colonization has had devastating consequences on the Indigenous population residing on Reservations in South Dakota.
According to the 2010 census, the Pine Ridge River Reservation only consisted of 3,308 individuals. By 2014, almost 50% of Indigenous women and men reported experiencing violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence. These statistics indicate that 4 out of 5 Indigenous folks have experienced some form of violence at least once in their lifetime. In fact, statistics and rates of sexual violence may be higher due to under-reporting. These instances of violence increase based on non-native intervention, poverty, substance abuse, and childhood exposure to violence.
The high rates of violence, poverty, and substance abuse play an active role in the widespread occurrence of human and sex trafficking on Reservations. For Indigenous folks in North and South Dakota, instances of human trafficking have become increasingly problematic with oil drilling. The corporate interest in oil drilling has a negative impact on the Indigenous community by intentionally placing large groups of non-natives in close proximity to Reservations.
The promise of gaining monetary compensation for drilling has rebranded North and South Dakota as the new Western Frontier. Human traffickers and pimps benefit from the large oil drilling encampments because they are utilized as a one-stop-shop for marginalized Indigenous girls and women. This indicates that interests in corporate oil drilling have caused the onset of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women across America.
Over spring break, I had the opportunity to visit the Pine Ridge River Reservation and Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota with an Immersion Program offered by the University of Southern California. However, an encounter during our last night in Rapid City made extremely aware easy someone can become a victim of human sex trafficking.
After dinner, we were approached by a young girl who proposed that her male friends wanted to meet and sit with us. We immediately declined the invitation, but that did not stop her male friends from approaching us. We recognized the red-flags of the situation and safely removed ourselves from the establishment.
We were only able to recognize the signs of human trafficking because we are privileged. As USC students, we are privileged with money, power through name recognition, and education. We have been trained to spot dangerous situations and problem-solve solutions on the spot. We have the money to afford the education and have been trained to recognize these red-flags. In addition, we might not be as vulnerable to human trafficking due to our socioeconomic status in America.
This close encounter with the young woman and group of men resembles Allison Mack’s role as a recruiter for the NXIVM group. Allison Mack exercised her privilege as a trusting and recognizable celebrity figure to lure and entrap unsuspecting women into human trafficking. Mack’s role as a female recruiter for NXIVM is a common tactic utilized by human traffickers.
Indigenous women and children do not share the same experiences as non-natives. As a matter of fact, 7 in 10 Indigenous children are expected to graduate high school and only 17% pursue higher-education. The risk-factors and barriers to completing and pursuing higher-education increases based on poverty, the absence of parents in the home, exposure to trauma and abuse, and substance abuse. These risk-factors place Indigenous women and children in a vulnerable position to be lured and swayed by the promises made by human traffickers.
In 2017, the #MeToo movement gained immense popularity in mainstream America, although the movement was originally created by Tarana Burke in 2006. The colonization and erasure of WOC is a topic that isn’t foreign to Indigenous folks on the reservation. Indigenous girls and women continued to feel excluded by the blatant disregard for native voices in the #MeToo movement.
In order to raise awareness surrounding the missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women across America, Senator Heidi Heitkamp drafted Savannah’s Act in 2017 and created the alternative hashtag for the movement: #NotInvisible. Savannah’s Act aims to fill the service gaps found in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to provide safety and protection for Indigenous women and girls. Since Savannah’s Act has been introduced, the movement has not gained much traction based on America’s proficiency to erase and silence things that do not make us feel comfortable.
What exactly can we do about human trafficking on Reservations across North America? First, let’s beat down the virtual doors of our government officials by tweeting and sharing facts and statistics surrounding human trafficking on Reservations.
Continue to share it with your friends, family members, and colleagues. Heck, bring it up over Thanksgiving dinner this year! The most important factor is raising awareness and advocating on behalf of Indigenous folks across America and Canada. Indigenous folks have asked again and again for visibility through education, advocacy, and public awareness.
As non-natives, let’s create a platform where they can stand on our shoulders and share their experiences across America and Canada. Together, let’s continue to rally for marginalized individuals on Reservations across America.
The Call of the Rohingyas: A 21st Century Holocaust
The brutal killings of Rohingyas have been confirmed by the international diaspora as being – “The Worlds most persecuted minority”. Rohingya progeny is found in Myanmar with the consistent brutal violence and forced fleeing which has become their daily existence.
A very minute spec of Humanity (The Rohingya`s) in the 21st century is in crisis and a strength of belonging to one`s land is transformed into a reality of statelessness. It’s a well directed ethnic cleansing, the level of hatred was and continues to such an extreme that Rohingyas hurriedly left their lands using the quickest available means of transport, mostly using water transportation, out of the fear of being persecuted in hopes of seeking shelter on whichever shore they reach. Despite being denied entry in many countries, they continue to float, as though living dead bodies would have done.
The very act of stamping down masses or crushing them is not limited to ethnic cleansing only, it`s a negative transformation injecting a lifelong fear, or memories of fear, hatred, and rejection from other nations, a destruction including emotional, physical and sociological. It`s a small term to call the Rohingya`s ethnic cleansing as genocide, it`s beyond the wordy jargons, something which humanity is witnessing in the 21st century – The Holocaust! The Renaissance of Killings!
“A Tale to be talked out or a Tale to be dusted in the coming years.”
The world needs to ponder, what are the paths that lead to the extremity of injected ethnic cleansing which violates almost all laws of human rights whether national or international, do question the level of insecurity any minority or small groups of tribes/masses undergo? What is the credibility that these lives will survive with dignity? The damage is done, though hope has not to be lost, human values are slowly dying a natural death, wonder the uncaptured inhuman phases the Rohingya`s are forced to live with?
There are innumerable talks on United Nations protocol, Laws which are ratified and not by Nations who want to help but find reasons to rejection or acceptance of its non-ratifications, security threats yes or no, but there is no one talking about, where do these group of neglected people go? Who will repatriate them while guaranteeing security and safety and thereby normalising towards rehabilitation?
What does it mean to be a Rohingya?
Just one day to be a Rohingya can cost you to stand just nowhere, belonging to no one, with nothing at all to exist except a body which is better living then dead if escapes to any other land or for that matter even surviving for days in the sea ….and curse oneself to be born, living in highly impoverished conditions with no health care access, and a life of full of crippled mobility.
The case of Rohingyas is being dealt in a manner where a strategic displacement in shifting the identity from National identity to individual minority group with a stateless status, and it is this very depreciating transformation has been played well enough to plan a systematic exodus of the ethnic group and flush them out of the Nation just as the slag of any process.
“ Myanmar is going through self inflictment, injuring its own people, it is not that easy, it kills the reputation of a Nation globally, affects its economic growth and this ethnic cleansing has witnessed a history, a history which is not supposed to be repeated but to be repealed!!”
What can or can`t the Nations do, is not the struggling or comparative question, the responsibility is more on how can this mass exodus of Rohingyas be addressed by the neighbouring Nations and not stopped. The reason of not stopping this exodus is clearly understood, since the history of Rohingya cleansing in Myanmar, dates back in 1970s, which is a proof of foment, displaying ethnic rifts and polarisation by using genocide as a tool to clean the cultural and religious species of Rohingyas.
“ Is Myanmar carrying a Heritage of Horror for its next generation”
They are subjected to a systematic marginalisation and wherever they have migrated, they are living in sheer abysmal conditions after escaping the fear of persecution. Not that migration has given them any promising hopes for rehabilitation but the least it could benefit them is saving life and continuing the survival struggle. An exhumation of the Rohingya history will bring out how this ethnic group has been time and again subjected to violence, hatred, rejection, forced labour, imposed a legal stateless status, restricted freedom of movement and to be précises a 21st century Holocaust!
“Is it a fight of religion or a fight to displace people who are of no good (as considered by their own nation), for the Nations economy and residing at that terrain which is explorable for tapping rich natural resources?”
Scottish Survivor Groups Encourage All Survivors of Abuse in Care to Take Part in a Milestone Consultation
Survivor groups in Scotland have called on all survivors of abuse in care to take part in an important consultation, allowing individuals to share their views on a possible financial redress scheme for the first time.
The consultation has been developed and delivered through a collaboration between a range of partners including survivor representatives (Interaction Action Plan Review Group) and CELCIS (the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland).
With just four weeks left to the deadline of Friday 17 November to complete the consultation, survivor groups have spoken out about the need for all survivors of abuse in care to take part.
David Whelan, spokesperson from Former Boys and Girls Abused in Quarriers group (FBGA), commented: “This redress and compensation consultation gives everyone who has experienced abuse in the care system in Scotland an opportunity to share their views. The consultation offers real choices to the individual and survivor groups as to what it is they would like in any proposed redress-consultation scheme. It allows all survivors a chance to have their voices and opinions heard. We would encourage as many survivors as possible to take part over the next month.
“Former Boys and Girls Abused in Quarriers group fully support this consultation which was put together in a partnership with other victims-survivors, the Scottish Human Rights Commission, CELCIS, The Scottish Government and others.”
Judith Robertson, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said: “Anyone who has been subjected to abuse has a human right to access justice and to an effective and fair remedy. Everyone has the right to live and be treated with dignity. The Scottish Human Rights Commission welcomes the consultation by the InterAction Review Group and CELCIS on financial redress for historic abuse. It is a crucial part of developing Scotland’s Action Plan on Historic Abuse and we encourage anyone who is themselves a survivor of childhood abuse to take part.”
Joanne McMeeking, Head of Improving Care Experiences at CELCIS, said: “We are in the final month of the consultation process, which is a milestone in terms of seeking justice for survivors of abuse in care in Scotland. Completing this consultation questionnaire gives survivors a way to have their views about potential financial redress seen and heard.”
The consultation is open to all victims/survivors of historical abuse in care as defined by the Terms of Reference of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry and is available online.
Rescuing Sex Trafficking Victims
Forty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to find Lois Lee, Ph.D., J.D. wandering the streets and alleys of Los Angeles at 3 a.m.; she even did so while pregnant with her son.
Dr. Lee was looking for victims of sex trafficking and those who exploited them.
Walking miles along Sunset, Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards, the then-24-year-old would hand out business cards with her hotline number, encouraging victims to call and letting them know what kind of help they’d find.
“These are girls, boys and transgender children that would fall between the cracks of the system,” remembers Lee. “They had nowhere to go — no one was providing a bed or a school or offering to take care of these kids.”
So, she created that place.
From 1979 to 1981, Lee housed more than 250 sex trafficking victims in her own home, all while building the Children of the Night outreach program; the privately funded nonprofit organization would become unlike any other in existence at the time, or even today, rescuing children from child prostitution and providing housing, education and treatment.
But perhaps most important, Lee gave them hope.
An Unimaginable Life
Lee was raised in Los Angeles, the eldest child in a family of three girls. It was a childhood she describes as healthy, safe and sheltered.
So when, as a graduate student at California State University, Dominguez Hills, her faculty mentor Jeanne Curran, PhD., then a professor of sociology, introduced her to the underworld of sex trafficking, it was a wake-up call.
“I wanted to make everything better because I just couldn’t imagine someone living in these types of conditions,” explains Lee, who graduated from CSU Dominguez Hills with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science in 1973 and a master’s in sociology in 1977.
It was at CSUDH that she developed the skills she’d later use to address child sex trafficking. Lee also taught courses at the campus’s Social Systems Research Center, then led by Dr. Curran. The center has since been renamed the Urban Community Research Center.
“Jeanne became a mentor for me, both on- and off-campus. She influenced my life and academic choices so much,” says Lee, a first-generation college student.
“She and CSU Dominguez Hills empowered me.”
Victims, Not Criminals
Late one night in 1977, Lee received a call from a woman who operated an escort service. A 17-year-old she worked with had not returned and she was unable to contact her.
Afraid, she had called Lee for guidance. Lee went to the police, who dismissed the call and refused to help. The next morning, the girl’s body was found; she had become one of the Hillside Stranglers’victims.
Frustrated by the lack of resources that were available to these girls, Lee appeared on an L.A. news broadcast, giving out her personal phone number and encouraging prostitutes with knowledge of the case to reach out to her directly. She promised confidentiality.
“I coordinated everything just as I had learned from Jeanne at CSU Dominguez Hills,” Lee recalls. “And that was really the beginning of my work.”
Lee would go on to play a critical role in the Hillside Strangler trial, testifying in the case and coordinating witnesses for the prosecution.
At just 27, Lee garnered attention when she sued the Los Angeles Police Department for prosecuting underage prostitutes while letting their customers go free.
She won the case and has gone on to file a number of other lawsuits.
“I taught vice detectives nationwide that there were children prostituting and they needed to be treated differently,” says the President’s Volunteer Action Award recipient. She strongly advocated – and still does – to have the children referred to and treated as victims, not criminals.
Education: The Key to Success
To date, Children of the Night’s president and founder is credited with rescuing more than 10,000 children from prostitution in the U.S.
The organization’s shelter, located in Van Nuys, California, offers no-cost housing for as many as 12 children ages 11 to 17. They attend classes at the on-site school, receive individualized treatment, and participate in fun outings. A nationwide toll-free hotline is also staffed 24/7.
Lee sees education as the most fundamental of the services they offer, and attendance is mandatory for all residents.
“What’s really important about the development of any society is to educate the people,” she explains. “Through education, I was able to learn about the world. Education empowers.”
While children are offered treatment to manage trauma, their past experiences are not the focus, Lee stresses. “I don’t feel sorry for the children with whom I work,” she says. “[That] incapacitates their ability to become strong and independent. I want the world for my kids. I have very high expectations of them.”
Which is not to say she isn’t deeply empathetic to what they’ve faced.
“There is no way that I can make what happened to them go away, but I can … put distance between their old lifestyle and their life now.”
Today, Lee is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in rescuing child sex trafficking victims, raising awareness on a topic that previously wasn’t talked about. In 1981, the General Accounting Office estimated there were 600,000 children under the age of 16 working as prostitutes in the United States. Today, that number is estimated to be 100,000.
In January 2017, Children of the Night announced a new global initiative to rescue 10,000 more children worldwide from sex trafficking.
Lee is also passionate about giving back to the campus that helped turn her dream into an advocacy mission that has no doubt saved thousands of lives.
“So much of what I have done and have been able to do in my life is because of my time at CSU Dominguez Hills,” Lee says. “The faculty raised me and nourished me. They liked to take risks and they challenged traditional thinking processes. “Dominguez Hills taught me how to break down barriers.”
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