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.”
A Practical Guide on How to Confront Hate
In the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tina Kempin Reuter, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Institute for Human Rights offers some practical tips on how to confront hate.
Know your human rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the key document guiding human rights advocacy. It is based on the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights and is founded on the core values of equality, non-discrimination and human dignity.
“Knowing one’s human rights is an important step that often gets forgotten,” Reuter said. “Learning the content and extent of basic human rights will give people the tools and language needed to address certain issues. Discrimination, suppression, racism, marginalization, and violence against individuals or groups are human rights violations that must be confronted.”
Reuter urges reporting human rights violations to the authorities such as the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice or other entities such as the American Civil Liberties Union. If an incident occurs in the workplace, inform your human resources representative or a diversity officer. At UAB, students, faculty, and staff can contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. You can learn more about international human rights by visiting the United Nations Human Rights website and by reading the UAB Institute for Human Rights blog, where faculty and students write about international human rights issues.
Speak up in the face of injustice
Once you know what human rights and human rights violations are, Reuter encourages everyone to pay attention and speak up in the face of injustice. Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life. Document, record and monitor what is going on around you, and if you see injustice, say something.
“The goal is to make everyday suppression of a specific group based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability status just as unacceptable as the violence and hatred that has occurred in Charlottesville,” Reuter said. “It’s these normal, hidden human rights violations that are particularly dangerous to our society and that we have to confront together.”
Be aware of your own biases
One of the ways to overcome biases and stereotypes is to engage with those who are different. Research shows that interpersonal contact is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice. This theory is called contact hypothesis. The theory suggests that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority groups.
“It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases,” Reuter said. “We all have them. Realize if you cross the street when a person of a different race walks toward you. Notice if you assume that someone is less competent because she is a woman, a person of color or Muslim. Think about systemic racism and structural violence in your own environment, and find ways to confront them. Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others. I encourage people to reach out and make new friends outside of their race, religion and gender.”
Join a movement or a cause that fits your passions and interests
Join a movement, and talk with others who feel the same. Look for a rally in your community. Organize a vigil. Participate in a discussion. Engage with others. Get together formally or informally. Look for opportunities to talk. The UAB Institute for Human Rights is a part of the StandAsOne Coalition. If you are a UAB student, you can join the Students for Human Rights club.
“Not all of us are born to be activists or community organizers,” Reuter said. “We cannot all become Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Leymah Gboweee; but we all can contribute by supporting the movement. Think about what you are good at and how your skills and talent can be used to move a cause forward.”
Call your representatives
One of the most effective ways to achieve policy change is to call local and state representatives. Reuter says calling is much more impactful than writing an email, Facebook message or letter. She advises anyone contacting their local representative to be polite to the staff, which is who you will most likely get on the line. Their staff members do not have influence on the decision-making process, but they will record your call and do not mind taking opposing views as long as the conversation is civil.
This step does not have to be formal. You can educate others by leading by example, or by bringing a friend along to a conversation you are having. It can happen person to person, on social media or on any other platform you use to connect with others. Creating art, poems and performances are incredible ways to get your point across to people who might find that formal ways of education do not resonate with them.
“It is such a privilege to be an educator,” Reuter said. “It is one of my favorite parts of my job to talk to students about issues that affect the world and to encourage them to learn more about these topics. It’s something that everyone can do. Teach your children and young relatives about kindness, human rights, and peace building. Teach them also about systemic suppression, racism and the way our society has oppressed minorities. Talk to them about what bothers you and what you would like to achieve. You don’t have to be a professor or teacher to educate others.”
One of the fastest and easiest opportunities to make an impact is to donate to an organization that fights for human rights or civil rights.
There are a number of organizations dedicated to ensuring the preservation of individual rights and liberties, one of which is the UAB Institute for Human Rights. You can learn more about the Institute here.
Take care of yourself
Confronting issues such as hatred, violence, and suppression can take a mental and physical toll on anyone. Reuter says it is important to know what you can and cannot do, what you are willing to do, and what your priorities are.
“Focus on the local level. Start in your own community,” Reuter said. “That world is changed person by person, but don’t forget to take care of your needs. When you start to feel overwhelmed, shut down Facebook, Twitter, cable news and other forms of media. Enjoy time with your friends and family. Be kind to yourself, and realize that real progress takes patience.”
How to Help Human Trafficking Survivors
Human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, has become an area of interest both in the general public and also within social work. As a result, attention, money, and resources are being allocated for this cause. The array of services needed for human trafficking survivors is complex, but one area that is not receiving enough support is in employment and training for survivors.
As Evelyn Chumbow, a survivor of domestic servitude and anti-trafficking activist stated, “There are times when I feel like screaming on behalf of all human trafficking survivors, we need jobs, not pity!”. I have served in the roles of both case manager and therapist for trafficking survivors. Across both roles, I have heard trafficking survivors express their exasperation and fear of not finding employment outside of the sex industry. What are the barriers?
Many sex trafficking survivors entered the sex industry at a young age, which likely resulted in a disruption in education. Because of this many did not have the opportunity to complete their high school degree.
Furthermore, many have criminal records that reflect prostitution charges. Expungement can be extremely complex to navigate. Many have no prior work history or spotty work history. All of these factors can make employment difficult to secure.
Survivors may also not feel comfortable with, or have success with, explaining their circumstances to a prospective employer. Finally, transgender trafficking survivors may face increased discrimination in employment due to barriers already described, but also as a result of their gender identity.
Employment can be a gateway for trafficking survivors to build independence. Traditional employment programs may not be a good match unless the staff is trained are well-trained on the particular employment issues that trafficking survivors may face and are able to find employment, sex trafficking survivors end up homeless or returning to the sex industry out of desperation to support themselves.
For those interested in helping sex trafficking survivors, consider how to help them in building job skills and obtaining employment. Some programs that serve trafficking survivors incorporate a jobs skills and employment component. One program that does a great job in this area is Thistle Farms, which was featured in the documentary A Path Appears.
While trafficking survivors may not have a traditional work history, they do have skills. They were able to survive their situation and have internal strengths. Despite the unimaginable circumstances they may have experienced, they have hope and want to support themselves and contribute. Many I have worked with have expressed a desire to make meaning of their experience and help others who have been trafficked.
At a recent conference held by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, many survivors voiced their need for skills training and employment. As one trafficking survivor stated, “Once we escape, there is a whole new hell…You can rescue us all you want, but what we need is an opportunity. We want jobs, we want education, we want choices”.
Why Feminism is Still Important For Social Workers
Feminism continues to be a fraught issue with fractures within the community of feminists, as well as women in general. Yet, feminism is more crucial than ever given the diversity of challenges women are now facing. Feminism has become a focal point again recently largely as a result of the Presidential election and the response from it. This is clearly important for social workers as well, from the perspective of human rights and social justice,as well as from a policy perspective.
The role of feminism came to the forefront during the Presidential election for various reasons, most obviously because for the first time a woman became the Presidential candidate for a major political party in the United States. The treatment and response by the media to a female candidate, in comparison to a male candidate, was highlighted by various commentators. This included incessant references to the candidate’s clothing and appearance, the sound of her voice, the dichotomy of seeming too harsh or cold vs. too weak.
Sadly, many female candidates are forced to endure humiliating treatment that their male counterparts would not experience. The list of demeaning comments made against Hillary Clinton goes on and on which also impacted the Republican female presidential candidate. President Donald Trump infamously commented on Carla Fiorina’s looks stating, “Look at that face!..Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” These demeaning, misogynistic attitudes and comments were pervasive this election season.
As a result, there has been a strong backlash to what many view as a war on women. This has culminated in the Women’s March, which was estimated to have had three times as many people in attendance than at the Presidential Inauguration. The momentum has continued with more women taking up the call to run for office. International Women’s Day, held on March 8th, also held more significance this year as the Women’s March organizers highlighted the day with calls for strikes from women, and for women to wear red in acknowledgement of the challenges women face.
Yet, there are many naysayers that feel that these efforts are women playing the victim. Some women are vocal that these efforts do not represent them. Political policy impacts all women, and the advantages we enjoy now came from blood, sweat and tears. This includes the continued fight for equal pay, women’s ability to advance in the workplace, paid maternity leave and better childcare options—these issues are universal. Aside from this, there is the continued victim blaming of those who have experienced rape on college colleges and lack of substantial follow-up on the part of the police. Many of those who are prosecuted are given a slap on the wrist, as was the case with Brock Turner.
Sexism and assault of women in the military continues, where most recently nude photos of a female Marine have been posted online. Intimate partner violence and murder of women by husbands or boyfriends is frighteningly pervasive. Seven trans women have already been murdered in 2017 and 27 were killed in 2016.
Furthermore, women and girls continued to be sexually exploited through human trafficking networks. This is due largely in part because our society condones selling women and the demand persists. Until recently children who were caught prostituting, some as young as 10, were prosecuted in court instead of viewing them as a victim in need of help. Even today not all states have yet adopted Safe Harbor laws, viewing “child prostitutes” as culpable in some way.
Worldwide women continue to experience gender-based violence. In Pakistan, Saba Qaiser was shot in the head and left for dead by her father as part of an honor killing. She miraculously survived, but saw no justice as she was pressured by the community to forgive those who shot her, letting them off the hook legally. India is experiencing a rape crisis, with 34,000 cases reported in 2015. 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced female genital mutilation. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war, including in Syria and Iraq, by ISIS militants.
Now is not the time for inaction or denial. Clearly, we still have a long way to go to achieve social justice for women in the United States and worldwide, and these issues have a direct connection to social workers and those we serve. The silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor has ignited a new rallying cry, “never the less she persisted”— and so should we all in this fight for fairness, equality and justice.
Subscribe to Our Newsletter
Head Start May Protect Against Foster Care Placement
Participating in Head Start may help prevent young children from being placed in foster care, finds a national study led...
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...
It’s National Coming Out Day
Today is National Coming Out Day which is a day of raising awareness and destigmatization for the LGBTQ community. It's...
Actor Terry Crews Comes Forward About Being Sexually Assaulted by Hollywood Exec
Actor Terry Crews takes to Twitter to discuss being sexually assaulted by a Hollywood Executive in the wake of the...
New Study Looks at End-of-Life Decision-Making for People with Intellectual Disabilities
A new study by researchers at the University at Buffalo provides a groundbreaking look at how advance care planning medical...
Elder Care2 months ago
Stressed Out Caregivers Are Using ER Visits for Respite, Study Finds
News2 months ago
5 Ways White Social Workers Can Respond to the Charlottesville Aftermath
LGBTQ2 months ago
Military Service Boosts Resilience, Well-Being Among Transgender Veterans
Culture2 months ago
The Rise of Hookup Sexual Culture on American College Campus
Global2 months ago
Britain: We Need to Talk About the Benefits System
Justice2 months ago
Exploring the Traumatic Impact of Criminalizing Policies on Black Women and Girls
Emergency Management1 month ago
How to Volunteer for Hurricane Irma Disaster Relief
Entertainment2 months ago
What “Bachelor in Paradise” Can Teach Us About Working With Young Black Men