Dr. Lois Lee: Working Toward Ending Sex Trafficking
See the need, hear the need, meet the need, answer the call.
Dr. Lois Lee holds a Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology, is a Juris Doctor (JD) in law, and is an active member of the California State Bar. She is also the world’s leading expert in rescuing child sex trafficking victims. In 1979, she established a privately funded nonprofit called Children of the Night.
Its mission is to provide intervention in the lives of children who are sexually exploited and vulnerable to, or involved in, prostitution and pornography. Dr. Lee maintains a 70-80% success rate with her life-changing work that mobilizes children from prostitution to successful adult life.
Children of the Night was the first nonprofit I ever volunteered at in Los Angeles. My heart broke when I learned of the horrendous things they went through due to sex trafficking. I was also incredibly moved by Dr. Lee’s fervor to rescue them and set them on a path that could lead to success. When I interviewed her for the podcast, I was so motivated to share it with others — there is much we can do to help the cause and bring these children off the street.
I am so inspired by Dr. Lee’s work. I sat down with her to talk about her experience with Children of the Night, why so many children are trafficked, and how she continues her mission to end sex trafficking. What resulted was an inspiring conversation.
Reasons why children are trafficked
Because many people who end up being trafficked are solicited when they are children, there is a very complicated dynamic between those being trafficked and those doing the trafficking. Dr. Lee shares one story of a young woman who was branded by her pimp. She said that she was proud to be branded — proud to belong to her pimp.
Other children are actually pimped out by family members: a father, uncle, cousin, or brother. There are others who have endured abuse (sexual, verbal, physical) at home and run away and are then picked up by a pimp.
According to Dr. Lee, this is all very preventable. Statistics show that children born to drug-addicted parents are more likely to be pimped out. She says that there are certain tests that hospitals and social workers can perform on these parents to determine whether they are fit to take their children home. Unfortunately, she says, Social Services doesn’t seem to want to implement these initiatives.
Dr. Lee explains that there are more than twenty different strategies that pimps use to get women and men involved in prostitution. They are manipulative and create a sort of Stockholm syndrome situation in which their victims actually begin to have positive feelings for their pimps. The only way to combat this is to connect with the victims in order to show them the proverbial light — a major part of Dr. Lee’s work.
Federal involvement isn’t always good news
Dr. Lee didn’t always plan to get into the fight against sex trafficking. She was on track to become a college professor when she began reading police reports filed on prostitution for her dissertation. She met a young woman who was working as a prostitute and wanted to get off heroin. Dr. Lee helped her, and the woman was able to start a methadone program to help beat her addiction.
When she did get sober, she eventually decided that she wanted to stop working the streets. She had nowhere to go, so Dr. Lee welcomed her into her home, and one thing led to another: she decided to start her organization, Children of the Night.
She was able to raise the funds she needed to get the organization out of her house. She raised millions of dollars, bought a new building, and set up a 24-bed shelter home in the heart of Hollywood.
Despite her efforts, the term “sex trafficking” still hadn’t been used to describe what was happening to children and adults all over the country. The government was very reluctant to help her as many politicians didn’t want to admit that there was a problem.
In time, the government did decide to get involved. They coined the term sex trafficking to properly note that there was an interstate commerce of human beings going on in the US. That movement between the states gave the federal government jurisdiction. That said, federal involvement doesn’t always mean a win.
A new beginning for Children of the Night
Children of the Night no longer has a shelter. This is due to a change in a code called 217. The change meant that if you make contact with a sex trafficking victim, you had to call a human trafficking hotline that’s run by the FBI. They interview children, often quite violently, and Dr. Lee did not want to be involved in that.
The victims are then sent to juvenile or solitary confinement or foster care. Unfortunately, many children are molested in foster care and so they end up running away. Which means they can’t go to school or get medical attention if needed.
When 217 changed, Dr. Lee decided to close up shop because she didn’t want to call and report the children to law enforcement so that they could be put in jail — or worse. She decided to adapt her program so that it was mainly happening online. By then, she had created a private school for victims of sex trafficking. She also decided to adapt that so it was all online. They tutor hundreds of children across the country and have helped many of them obtain a high school diploma. She says that her client base has increased by 90% since she went digital.
Dr. Lee affirms that although her work isn’t easy, she never gives up. She once said to a victim, “If you want me to buy your books and school supplies when you’re in college, I’ll do that. And if you want me to hold your hand when you’re dying from AIDS, I’ll do that too.” It’s a perfect example of how seriously she takes her work. It’s a comfort to know that there are folks out there, like Dr. Lee, who are willing and able to help so many in need.
If you want to contribute to Dr. Lee’s mission against sex trafficking, she says that every donation counts, big or small. Children of Night’s motto is: see the need, hear the need, meet the need, answer the call. They continue to help victims in the US and around the world and will continue to do so until sex trafficking is eradicated.
Visit their website to learn more about how you can get involved.
If you want to hear more from Dr. Lee, be sure to listen to our full conversation here.