Children's Voice September/October 2007

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Keeping Girls Off the Street

The My Life My Choice Project targets girls at risk of sexual exploitation.

By Emily Shenk

At 13, "Cara" ran away from her group home in Boston with a friend, unaware of what dangers the streets might bring. She had been in multiple foster homes growing up, and in an effort to belong and fit in with her peers, she ran away.
[Cara's name has been changed to protect her identity.]

Cara ended up in "the Life"--a term used to describe life in prostitution--after meeting a pimp. She worked in the Boston area for two years until an undercover police officer caught her and referred her to the Department of Social Services (DSS). She landed back in group care at a residential facility and today, at 18, is preparing to live on her own.

Cara might have run again if not for the My Life My Choice Project, a prostitution prevention program based in Boston for girls at risk for sexual exploitation. My Life My Choice educates youth providers about how to address the sexual exploitation of adolescent girls in care and works with the girls themselves to build their knowledge and skills to prevent exploitation.

Nationally, the average age of entry into prostitution is 13-16 years, and 300,000 of the estimated 1.2 million prostitutes in the United States are children. Lacking connections to family, desperate for love and attention, and struggling financially, young girls involved with the child welfare system are particularly vulnerable to the Life, which may appear glamorous at first glance.

Unless their group home has a prevention program like My Life My Choice, girls are usually unaware they are being drawn into prostitution.

"Pimps stand outside and wait for girls to come smoke a cigarette or walk to the store," says Rachel Lloyd, Founder and Executive Director of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), the only nonprofit in New York State that works specifically with victims of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. "Sexual abuse has taught [these girls] their bodies are exchangeable, or they'll get rewarded if they have sex with somebody. Pimps are very good at creating the fantasy of this whole other life. And when you're dealing with the child welfare system...that can be so tempting."

Lloyd can attest first-hand to the ease with which young girls, particularly those in the child welfare system, are targeted by pimps. After running away from home and her alcoholic mother, she became involved in the Life in Europe and narrowly escaped when her pimp tried to kill her. "Eighty to 90% of the kids we see [at GEMS] have been physically or sexually abused," Lloyd says. "That means that there's a high likelihood that if you're in a group home, there's been some level of neglect, abandonment, abuse, substance abuse, death, trauma--you name it."

Realities of "the Life"

Latasha Cannon was another girl in care who was drawn into the Life, but with fatal consequences. In 2001, the 17-year-old was murdered in Massachusetts while reportedly involved in prostitution. Latasha had been living in a DSS-funded group home at the time. Her death spurred questions about the vulnerability of girls in residential group care facilities to be lured into sexual exploitation. DSS developed My Life My Choice after Latasha's death to examine and prevent sexual exploitation in the state.

My Life My Choice initially began with a $60,000 grant awarded from DSS to the Home for Little Wanderers, a private, nonprofit child and family service agency in Boston, to address the issue of sexual exploitation. The Home for Little Wanderers conducted a comprehensive literature review to create a national profile of girls at risk. The picture that developed was one very much in line with the typical profile of a girl in group care--a girl with low self-esteem, typically with a history of sexual or physical abuse, whose experiences lead her to believe there isn't a better life out there. The review also found that girls were getting involved in the Life at disturbingly young ages.

My Life My Choice Program Director Lisa Goldblatt Grace sees this problem happening nationwide. "I was recently in San Diego and heard providers talking about the same kinds of tactics that pimps use there," she says. "Pimps seek out the most vulnerable girls, and being in group care often means that things have been difficult for these young women throughout their lives. Pimps sense that and target group home residents."

The result of the Home for Little Wanderers' review was a 10-session curriculum designed to educate vulnerable girls about the Life. The first group session was held in 2003 at Germaine Lawrence, New England's largest provider of residential treatment for adolescent girls with severe behavioral and emotional problems. To date, about 200 girls have participated in My Life My Choice groups in a variety of settings across the country, including group homes, residential treatment facilities, DSS offices, juvenile corrections facilities, and public schools. More than 1,500 providers have been trained to understand sexually exploited youth, including child protective services, law enforcement, health care providers, and staff within the programs where the group has been offered. Both the Massachusetts DSS and the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, fund the project.

My Life My Choice sessions provide information about the realities of the Life, the recruitment methods used by pimps, sexual health, substance abuse, media literacy, and how to find additional resources to avoid or leave prostitution. The program's overarching goal is to increase girls' self-esteem by showing them they are valued and accepted.

Two women lead each session, one a licensed social worker and the other a survivor of the Life. A major strength of the program is the live testimony from people formerly involved in the Life, including survivors of prostitution and pimps.

Hearing directly from survivors of the Life greatly affected Cara, who participated in a group at Germaine Lawrence upon her clinician's suggestion. Initially she felt uncomfortable talking about her experiences, but hearing other women tell their stories gave her hope. "It made me wonder, maybe I could do that--talk about it and keep my head high," she says. "I felt more comfortable to say my part and didn't feel ashamed."

"The girls need women who have been through what they have been through to feel like they are not alone," says Audrey Morrissey, Assistant Program Director of My Life My Choice and a survivor of the Life. Morrissey first got involved with My Life My Choice when she was asked to speak about her experiences at an early training. Since then, she has become increasingly involved in the program and a role model for many girls.

Lloyd points out that having a mentor can be an important part of staying out of the Life. "Lots of studies prove that having a consistent, supportive adult in your life can really make a difference," she says, "particularly if that adult can talk to you in a nonjudgmental way about the streets and pimps and what you're facing."

Cara formed a close relationship with Morrissey, and after completing the My Life My Choice program, decided to help run the group. "I call her, I e-mail her, sometimes I go over to her house," Cara says of Morrissey. "It makes me want to move on and do better things for myself."

Victims, Not Criminals

Germaine Lawrence staff were initially nervous about handling discussions about sexual exploitation by participating in the My Life My Choice project. But as they learned more about the Life and the vulnerability of the girls in their care, they quickly came on board. "We've provided increased education to staff, which has allowed them to be more active and supportive with girls," says Beth Everts, Director of Clinical Services at Germaine Lawrence.

Through the program, staff now know the warning signs a pimp may be targeting a girl, and they ask many more questions about girls' boyfriends. A staff member, for example, might ask if a boyfriend is showering her with gifts, or what he does for a living. They also watch for signs that girls have entered the Life, such as having a street name, having multiple pagers or cell phones that ring at all hours, changing appearance, or losing interest in age-appropriate activities.

"By learning about the dynamics of the Life and the psychological and physical impact of exploitation, staff are better able to respond to the girls in their care and understand their experiences," Goldblatt Grace explains.

During staff training, My Life My Choice stresses that girls are victims, not criminals. "We see girls who've already been sexually exploited going into group homes or foster care, then somebody finds out, and they are completely stigmatized, not only by their peers but by staff as well," Lloyd says. "This is really challenging, because it makes girls want to go back to the person who wasn't stigmatizing them. [Their pimp] may have been beating them, but he wasn't making fun of them." Staff need to let girls in their care know they are there to help if the girls find themselves being drawn into prostitution, Lloyd says.

"If kids know they're just going to be shamed or humiliated, of course [they won't talk]," Lloyd says. "Pimps do a great job of building trust and loyalty, of taking 110% of their attention and putting it on that girl. In social services, we don't equal that. His whole time and attention revolves around herOeand we're overwhelmed with our caseloads and don't have time to sit down with the girl even when she's crying out for help. Then we wonder why she feels a stronger connection to him than to us."

Encouraging results are emerging from the My Life My Choice project. "Since we've started the group, more girls have felt comfortable enough to...disclose their experiences," Everts says.

Through questionnaires, participants have illustrated a significant increase in their understanding of sexual exploitation, Goldblatt Grace says. In one group she facilitated, for example, a participant realized her boyfriend was actually grooming her for prostitution. Staff contacted Boston police, and it turned out the young man was a well-known pimp. The girl was transferred to a safer location, and police increased surveillance on the pimp.

"The vast majority of girls who get exploited through prostitution had no idea what they were getting into," Goldblatt Grace says. "They have a right to understand there are pimps out there seeking them outOeWhether this happens through My Life My Choice or some other way, as providers we have a responsibility to these vulnerable girls."

Making the Right Choice

Cara recommends agencies implement My Life My Choice, if they don't already have a similar program, to give girls the resources to determine and get excited about their own futures. She feels strongly that My Life My Choice could have prevented her from getting involved in the Life had the program been available at the group home from which she ran. She says when she met her pimp, "I could've known better, saying, 'I've heard about people like you.'"

She doesn't struggle with going back to the Life at this point. "That's something I no longer want," she says. "And I have someone like Audrey to always remind me what I really want for my future."

Since attending her high school prom and graduating last spring, Cara plans to enroll in college to study nursing. "I know now that I have more choices. I don't have people judging me for what I've done in the past. I have my life together, and it feels good. "My Life My Choice offers half-day and full-day trainings for youth service providers nationwide. For information about training sessions or obtaining copies of the My Life My Choice curriculum, contact Lisa Goldblatt Grace at 617/699-4998 or lgoldblattgrace@thehome.org.

Emily Shenk is a Contributing Editor to Children's Voice.


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