More than 30 years have passed since Lois Lee worked on her doctoral dissertation, but what she learned in those early years has informed her life. A Ph.D student in sociology, Lee conducted the first US study of the social world of street prostitution. The chapter “The Pimp and His Game” is still relied upon by attorneys, law enforcement officials and social service professionals as a guide for the prosecution of pimps, education of juries and treatment of child prostitutes.

What Lee saw on the streets of LA as she traveled its seedy underbelly for her research horrified her: runaway kids, victims of ruthless pimps, forced to prostitute themselves for food and shelter. It led her to a decades-long odyssey to get kids, whom she recognized as victims of our society and not as criminals, off the streets.

It began innocently enough. In 1979, Lee brought home a teenage girl she’d met—a young runaway who’d turned to prostitution as a means of supporting herself. That young girl was followed by another, and then another. Before she knew it, 250 kids had come to live in Lee’s home as they transitioned off the streets. For nearly three years, Lee’s home became a sanctuary for these frail and damaged children.

From the beginning, Lee knew this was her life’s calling. She received an early grant from the Playboy Foundation that allowed her to buy food for the kids in her home and to open a phone line that would become a 24-hour hotline. She began raising funds to open a drop-in center in Hollywood.

Called Children of the Night (COTN), the walk-in crisis center and hotline officially opened for business in 1981. Three decades later, the hotline receives 10,000 calls from desperate kids each year. It is the only nationwide hotline staffed by trained workers who have been taught how to communicate with law enforcement, rescue children from pimps and prepare them to testify in court.

Ten years of fundraising allowed Lee to realize the next goal of her dream in 1992: an in-home program that can accommodate 24 residents at a time. Each year, it provides shelter and nurture for 50–100 girls—and a handful of boys—aged 11-17. These children of abusive homes have found their way to the COTN home by way of a probation officer, social worker, or parent. They find their way out of the home thanks to the effectiveness of programs that support each child in a loving way and help them find solid footing, often for the first time. An on-site school offers innovative math and reading programs, a patented keyboarding program (Keyboarders Gone Ballistic), access to college, and funding for college books and school supplies. The home also features individual case management, recreational outings, and an opportunity to safely experience the simple joys of childhood.

Each child who enters the home is helped to develop his or her own “life plan.”  Most leave the structured but homelike environment of COTN for their own homes, using their newfound skills to build a bridge back to their family. Others are ready to live on their own, and still others move on to a college dormitory. Leaving the COTN home is not a final farewell. COTN provides ongoing case management to more than 600 COTN alumni, many of whom became professionals, including business executives, attorneys, and educators.

In 1996, Lee took and passed the California bar exam. It was yet another step along her life’s journey to advocate for child prostitutes. With a law degree under her belt, Lee can more actively pursue legal channels to help “her” kids.

Refusing to rest on her laurels, Lee is forging ahead with determination. In 2011, she announced the initiation of a new program called Children of the Night With Out Walls (WOW). Dr. Lee is now able to take Children of the Night’s award-winning programs into underfunded and undeveloped teen shelters across the nation. Dr. Lee is providing shelters with the tools they need to successfully manage cases, schooling, legal services, professional volunteers, fundraising expertise, and in-kind donations. Through the program, COTN provides teenagers living on the streets across America with access to birth certificates, school records, social security cards, government-issued photo identification, transportation to critical social services, case management, educational services including academic assessments, preparation, tutoring, and support services to test for the GED.

Lee is accomplishing all this by sending highly trained members of her staff across the country to talk with shelters and place stickers on their telephones so that when they have children in their shelters who need educational plans or mental health placements and services, they will call COTN. Children of the Night provides the necessary services by phone and online. Just as they do with the kids they serve in Los Angeles, they follow the kids they help through the With Out Walls program and can provide support if they go back to the streets, move to a different state, or end up in a motel with their pimp.

Additionally in 2011, Lee and famed director and producer David Lynch announced a joint partnership between his foundation and COTN to bring mindfulness-based training to the children she serves. This is part of the national WOW program.

There is, too, the possibility of an international presence for Children of the Night. Lee is working with Interpol so that COTN can provide emergency response for law enforcement agencies and nongovernmental organizations working with sex-trafficked kids in countries like Argentina, Ecuador, and Puerto Rico.

Over the decades, Lee has remained dogged in her determination to rescue children from the streets—overcoming threats of arrest, violence, and ostracism to raise the millions of dollars needed to provide her crucial services. One hundred and fifty volunteers have joined her crusade to help kids off the streets. And tens of thousands of kids have benefited from her tireless efforts.

Nonprofit Nutshell: Children of the Night is dedicated to assisting thousands of children between the ages of 11 and 17 who are forced into prostitution. COTN started in 1979 as a walk-in crisis center and 24-hour hotline. Today, the hotline’s highly trained staff receives 10,000 calls from desperate kids each year. An in-home program started in 1994 provides shelter and nurture for up to 100 teens, and features an onsite school and college placement program. Most recently, founder Lois Lee initiated With Out Walls (WOW) to bring COTN’s award-winning programs and case management services to underfunded and undeveloped teen shelters across the country.  14530 Sylvan Street / Van Nuys, California 91411 ~ Hotline: (800) 551-1300 ~  Main: (818) 908-4474.

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