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Arizona's StreetLight USA rehabilitates victims of child sex trafficking
One of Arizona's fastest growing industries is not something economists and tourism officials like to talk about, even though it generates millions of dollars each year.
Child prostitution keeps local law enforcement busy, but there is a relatively new program that helps the young sex workers get off the streets and return to school and their families. “StreetLight USA” was designed for victims of child sex trafficking.
Social workers say they are troubled by an upswing in children who sell sex on the streets and advertise their services on the web or in the papers.
"In Phoenix, and we’ve learned this from our vice unit, we are a hot spot for trafficking," said Kristine Hickle, a social worker with Arizona State University.
Hickle said child prostitutes can make a lot of money in Phoenix, because there is a steady flow of tourists and commercial truckers who like to employ them.
"These are kids that are coming from disorganized home environments, abuse, neglect, substance abuse in the home and domestic violence," Hickle said.
These kids often run away from home. Sometimes they come from Mexico, the Philippines and other countries, brought to Arizona by smugglers who sell them like slaves. The kids usually latch on to a pimp or perpetrator who promises to take care of them, feed them and give them a warm place to sleep.
But some parents addicted to drugs will even force their own children to sell their bodies for quick cash.
"We had a girl here, 11 years old, and her mom was pimping her out," Lea Benson said.
Benson is President and CEO of StreetLight USA. It is a program that was created in Phoenix four years ago. It helps child sex workers get out of the business and return to a normal life.
Right now, 33 girls live at StreetLight’s home in the West Valley. It is a group of stucco office buildings and small apartments surrounded by a tall block security fence tucked away in a quiet neighborhood. They have a tennis court, playground and a vegetable garden.
Benson explained how the girls live and showed off one of their apartments.
"This is a typical home, there are two girls to a room," Benson said. "You can see we have them painted in very vibrant colors. They have their own kitchen where they cook.”
Most of the girls live here for about a year and a half before asked to leave. They have a strict schedule that includes tutoring, counseling and group activities.
There are strict limitations on what the girls can share about their backgrounds and lives. StreetLight required them to change their name, so two of the girls said they want to be called Selina and Destiny when interviewed. The girls looked about 15 years old, and both were dressed in casual comfortable clothes sitting under a shady tree at the group home’s picnic table.
Destiny said the StreetLight program has helped her let go of her past life in prostitution.
“It’s fun, it’s different than everyday life on the outs. It’s helping me overcome things that I’ve been through. It’s safe, I feel safe here," Destiny said.
Selina said she appreciates having a place to stay where she can get off the streets and reflect on her future.
“It’s helping me be independent, and, it’s helping me get my path straight," Selina said. "It’s helping me appreciate my family more.”
As Destiny and Selina shared their stories, their StreetLight counselor Carolyn Jones grabbed their hands and nods her head yes in recognition of what they were saying. Jones is a former prostitute who worked the streets of Phoenix when she was a teenager and has a lot to offer these girls.
“A lot of times, when they first get here they really don't want to be here, but to see them turn it all around and say, 'You know what, I’ve made some success out of my life, I want to have something. I want to make my family proud,'" Jones said. "And they’re getting a new chance to begin again. They get a chance to rewrite their stories.”
Jones rewrote her own story about a decade ago when she decided to get out of prostitution. That is when her sister Janice was murdered while working as a prostitute in Phoenix. Jones said the day her sister was killed she asked God to help her help others, and she started counseling child sex workers.