Runaways' Refuge


During the day, tourists stroll along Hollywood Boulevard, visiting Mann's Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame, buying souvenirs in the many shops that line the street. At night, the tourists are gone, and Hollywood Boulevard becomes a sexual supermarket, a forbidding place. Cars cruise slowly down the street. On the sidewalk, prostitutes wait to be picked up by one of the drivers. It's no place for a child, but many of these prostitutes are children; some haven't even reached their teens.

But prostitutes and their customers aren't the only people on Hollywood Boulevard. Volunteers from Children of the Night also walk the street, talking to the kids, letting them know that help is available if they want to get off the street. The group also runs a 24-hour hotline that kids can call when they are in trouble. Children of the Night will find them shelter and get them medical or legal help if it is needed. It helps the older ones find jobs and apartments, and it places the younger ones in foster homes.

This spring, Children of the Night moved into new headquarters in Van Nuys. This small city in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles seems far removed from the sleazy world of teen prostitution, and that's just the way Lois Lee, founder and director of Children of the Night, wants it. In addition to the group's headquarters, the site houses a 24-bed shelter for Lee's charges. In Van Nuys, she figures, the kids won't have to face their old pimps, customers, and drug dealers.

Blonde and pretty, Lee looks like a middle-class businesswoman, not someone who knows her way around the streets. But talk to her, and you quickly find that she is tough and passionate about the kids she tries to save.

In the late 1970s, Lee was a graduate student at United States International University. While researching a dissertation on the politics of prostitution, she found that social workers are often reluctant to help prostitutes. She blames this on the stigma that many people still attach to women who are sexually active. "There's still that underlying notion that you can't rehabilitate a prostitute."

Lee recalls one of the first girls she helped, a 12-year-old picked up by the police for prostitution. The police took the girl, a sexually abused runaway, to the children's welfare office, but they refused to accept her. "They didn't want her to contaminate the other kids," Lee says. "They literally told the police, 'She's a prostitute, it's against the law, it's a crime. Just arrest her and put her on probation.'"

The idea of arresting child prostitutes appalled Lee. She saw it as punishing the victim rather than the real criminals. She took the child home with her and helped place her in a private foster home. Lee's frustrations with the system led her to found Children of the Night in 1979.

Hollywood attracts runaways from all over the country, but Lee finds that most of her kids fit a common profile. They are usually from white, middle-class homes. About 80 percent have been sexually abused, often by a family member. Most have at least one parent who is an alcoholic.

It seems odd that a child who leaves home to escape sexual abuse would turn to prostitution. But Lee explains that most of these kids are too young to get conventional jobs, and when they hit the streets they meet pimps who tell them that sex is all that men want from them. "And there's plenty of evidence of that for any young woman who walks down the street, whether it's the construction people whistling at her or Hollywood people grabbing at her and making all kinds of sexual offers," says Lee. "Many kids on the street say they'd rather be doing it with a stranger than at home waiting for their father to come into the bedroom."

Lee accepts no government funds. "They talk to a couple of 'experts' and then tell you how they want the money spent. Sometimes they haven't a clue as to what is really going on, or how much it costs." Children of the Night's funding comes from a number of individuals and foundations. One of the most important contributors, and the most controversial, is the Playboy Foundation. Lee's first two grants came from Playboy. "I had been working with adult prostitutes," she recalls, when Christie Hefner, chairman of Playboy Enterprises, "really pushed me to do something about the kids."

It might seem paradoxical for a woman who helps victims of sexual abuse to take money from Playboy, but Lee argues that magazines such as Playboy have nothing to do with the abuse that her charges have suffered. Alcohol, she believes, is a much more important factor. In 1985, Meese Commission investigators contacted Lee, wanting to speak to her kids. The investigators, it turned out, were trying to find children who would testify that pornography had played a part in the sexual abuse they had suffered. "I don't know a kid who has ever said that," Lee remembers replying, "but I'll ask." When she talked to the kids, she recalls, "they said the same thing they've said for years: 'My dad was a drunken asshole, and he was always drunk. It didn't have anything to do with Playboy or Penthouse.'" When asked why her father molested her, one girl said simply, "Because he was a sick son-of-a-bitch." The commission declined to hear testimony from Lee's children.

Lois Lee isn't sure how many kids she has helped. "Thousands" is all she will claim. Thousands more remain on the street. Some will end up dead. Others in jail. But some will call Children of the Night.

Charles Oliver is editorial assistant and staff writer at REASON.