The girl was 16 by the time she arrived at the Letot Center in Northwest Dallas, and already she had given birth to a child, spent nights sleeping in vacant lots and worked as a prostitute. Sending her home was not the answer. Home is where her mentally ill, crack-addled mother who had raised her lived. Home is where the problems started.
Locking the girl up in a juvenile detention center, even for a short stay on prostitution or truancy charges, wouldn't make much of a difference either. Before long, she'd be back on the streets, turning tricks.
So she was sent to the Letot Center, a 40,000-square-foot facility off Denton Drive that has earned a reputation over the last several decades as a place that can turn around troubled girls.
"It's been three years since she was here, and I haven't heard back from her," Cathy Brock, director of the residential services at Letot, says on a recent Friday afternoon. "And for us, that's a good sign."
Brock has been at Letot for more than two decades, and during that time she has seen a small shelter become a national model for how private groups can partner with local government agencies to address a rising, although little recognized, scourge on America's streets.
That scourge is domestic sex trafficking, and every week, the Letot Center takes in girls as young as 13 who are part of a thriving underground sex trade that stretches from Miami to Los Angeles. "When people hear about sex trafficking they think it's international. They don't realize it's also domestic," Brock says. "It could be the girl across the street. It could be going on down the road. It's right under our noses."
This September, a group called Shared Hope International released a report on how Dallas private and governmental agencies are responding to the problem of domestic sex trafficking. The report identified Letot as an example of what other cities should do, and noted that it was the only model in the cities its organization visited that offered sex-trafficking victims diversion services rather than punitive treatment. The need, the report noted, is for more protective placement facilities like Letot and more community-based services that address the "extreme psychological, emotional, and physical abuse by traffickers [and] pimps."
Last year, the Dallas Police Department identified 119 minors who were involved in prostitution, many of whom ended up at the Letot Center. According to Letot staff, these are often runaways targeted, recruited and groomed by a sophisticated pyramid organization that is run by a pimp or trafficker who has connections across the country.
"Let's say you have an 11- to 14-year-old who is running away from home, and usually they're running away from something pretty awful," says Cherie Thompson, the non-residential supervisor at Letot. "These are girls who almost always have suffered some kind of abuse, often horrible abuse. One way or another they hook up with an older child, someone who is 15 or 16, who invites them to stay with them, and these new friends are hooked up with a pimp and it goes from there."
The grooming process, Thompson says, is gradual and calculated. At first, the sex seems consensual, and before long, the girls are asked to turn occasional tricks to help pay the bills.
"You have to remember, these are girls who sometimes come from homes without plumbing. All of the sudden, they have someone who is taking care of them, buying them new jeans at Old Navy, taking them out to dinner at Chili's, getting their nails done. The pimp tells them, 'I'm your boyfriend now. We need to get our own apartment and to do that we need to make some money. Just do this once.' If the girl doesn't cooperate, or build up the number of tricks she can turn a night, they move them. They move them all over the country."
In response to this problem, the Dallas Police Department created the Child Exploitation/High-Risk Victims and Trafficking Unit in November of 2005. The department recognized that its policy regarding runaways—taking them back to troubled homes or sending them to a juvenile detention center for a short stay—wasn't working. The children simply ran away again, making them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation or becoming criminal offenders.
The unit determined that of the kids they were picking up for prostitution, 80 percent had run away at least four times in the last year. The solution, they realized, was to address the root causes that lead to the teens running away in the first place, and that's where the Letot Center came in. Runaways who police determined had been exploited by adults were sent to the Letot Center.
Today, the Letot Center, which has been called the most comprehensive facility in the country for runaways, serves more than 2,000 youths a year.
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The facility, which is run by Dallas County, has a 40-bed residential treatment center for kids who are referred to Letot by police for runaway, truancy and Class B misdemeanors. Youths typically stay for 28 days, but can stay for 90.
The goal of the center is to reunite runaways with their families when possible and to prevent them from winding up in the juvenile justice system through group therapy, individualized counseling plans, life-skills classes, confidence-building sessions and family counseling. The facility partners with private and public service providers throughout the county and state—from Child Protective Services to the Juliet Fowler residential treatment center. Seventy-three percent of the kids who go through Letot are not arrested or picked up for prostitution within the next year.
Yet, for all that Letot has accomplished—one national expert on runaway children called it a model facility—much work remains to be done. There are no long-term facilities for runaway girls that can meet the demand, Letot staff members say, although the center has embarked on an ambitious fund-raising initiative to build such a center on Letot property.
"The great thing about Letot is we're working with kids to try to get to the root problem," says Sheryl Eagleton, Letot superintendent. "We find out why they're having problems in the first place, we address problems in the family, we get them in aftercare, and often they are able to move on with their lives and not end up back here again."