At age 14, young women in Westchester are usually entering high school, making their first solo trips to the mall, and beginning to tailor their studies toward a future they’ve been brought up to believe is bright. But in the center of the County, tucked away in a pair of large cottages on a sprawling Pleasantville campus, there are 19 girls who simply want to pick up the pieces. These are Janmarie Brown’s daughters—not by blood, but by tears and toil—and they are fighting their way back from hell. When 2,200 children a year are held, abused, sold, and traded for sex in New York City alone (an estimate many experts consider low), these young women in Brown’s care are the lucky ones.
Brown is director of Gateways, a residential program for girls who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. The program is one of many offered by the Cottage Schools network run by the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA), whose motto reads “Every child deserves to grow up hopeful.” The Cottage Schools currently work with more than 300 children with serious emotional and family problems.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Brown, whose girls come from all over New York State. “But I don’t think there’s anything else that I could see myself doing right now.”
Leaning on an oversized table where the girls gather for meals, homework, and group counseling sessions, Brown has a motherly glow about her.
Perhaps it’s the oversized sweater. Perhaps it’s the box of donuts waiting on the nearby kitchen counter. But, most likely, it’s the sense of purpose that shines through even when life threatens to wring all the energy out of her. To call what she does a job would be like referring to Stonehenge as a rock garden. It is a calling.
“This was meant to happen,” says the Bronx native, who now lives in Yonkers with her husband, Shawn. “I was meant to come here.”
Brown has degrees from Pace University and Mercy College, including a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. Before coming to Gateways, she worked at Blythedale Children’s Hospital, the Devereux Millwood Learning Center, and another JCCA program that ended when Gateways opened in 2009. She was promoted to director in June 2012. Brown says she always wanted to work with youth, but it wasn’t until Gateways that she realized how close she’d once come to being on the other side.
Having grown up in an area of the Bronx that is “well known as a track,” Brown was exposed to sexual exploitation early. It was part of the scenery. It was there every day when she walked to school, passing women on the street corner and watching cars make slow circles around the block. It was there when classmates made decisions under the pretense of “just making a couple dollars.” It was there in summer, when a well-dressed man often came by offering baseballs and other goodies to the neighborhood kids. “At one point, I remember one of the ladies saying to me, ‘He’s grooming you,’” she recalls. “And I didn’t know what that meant.”
Brown says she made many mistakes that easily could have led her down a very different path. She hung out with friends who were getting into fights, getting arrested, and hanging out with the wrong crowds. Teachers told her she’d never amount to anything, and, for a long while, she believed them. Then, one day her mother sat her down and talked about what a wonderful future she envisioned for her daughter. “Once I heard that somebody had these thoughts in their head about me and what I could do,” says Brown, “it made a difference.”
This sort of support is invaluable for those who’ve stumbled into the woods and are finding their way back. But in response to trauma, some people put up emotional walls that are nearly impossible to crack.
“When they look in the mirror, they just don’t see it,” Brown says. “They see a totally different person than we see.” She recalls girls who relapsed and fled to other states with the men who beat them, or who were exploited by madams and pimps in every borough of New York City, or who were abused so severely words failed her. The horror stories are certainly numerous—from rape, abuse, and brainwashing, to incest and even branding. But, thanks to people like Brown and more than 30 full- and part-time Gateways employees, the success stories are catching up.
Now 16, Taz* came to Gateways in March 2012. She’d spent two years on the streets of New York City, “call dating” to get by, until landing in the hands of a pimp who choked her, beat her, put her into a coma for three months, and literally carved his name into her back with a safety pin.
Initially, she thought that “he would take care of me and I would have a place to live and someone to love me,” Taz told a room full of Gateways supporters in January. “I really wanted that.” But, instead of love, she got abuse and psychological manipulation. “I was young, but I thought I was grown, and could take the beatings if I had to.” When she finally found the clarity and courage to leave, Taz bounced from juvenile detention to Rikers Island before a judge sent her to Westchester.
At Gateways, Taz learned how to trust again and to understand the real meaning of love. With the other girls, she took classes at the union-free school on campus. She learned to cook, write, and play sports. She discovered a passion for theater and therapeutic arts. Her grades climbed back up at school, she says, and the staff at Gateways helped her find a job. “They have let me know that there are loving people wherever I go. They provided an ongoing safe environment for me.” Taz was discharged from the program with the administration’s blessing early this spring and is back home with her mother in Brooklyn. Now, she not only sees herself going to college—she wants to become a pediatrician. She is not alone.
While the program is only in its fourth year, many of its graduates have gone on to college—both on their own and on scholarship. Many more are nurturing dreams of becoming surgeons or lawyers or writers. “Just because they went through this doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” Brown says.
“And, as a program, we want to give them those tools and move them forward.”
Unfortunately, while awareness about domestic trafficking is increasing, there is still much work to be done. Up until 2008, when New York passed the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, these girls were treated more like criminals than victims. Now, Brown believes the biggest obstacles are funding (Gateways is the only residential treatment center of its kind in New York State, so Brown has to turn desperate girls away far too often), and perception (from the connotation of words like “johns” and “tricks” vs. “prostitute,” to the turn-a-blind-eye mentality of neighbors and commercial outfits like craigslist and backpage.com).
“This is not just an international problem,” agrees Lisa Sherman-Cohen, former JCCA communications and marketing director. “This really happens to people in your own neighborhood, in your own backyard. It’s a big secret, and it shouldn’t be.”
The most difficult thing for Brown is accepting that she can’t help everyone. But, no matter how hard it gets, she’s determined to keep trying—long after each official file has been closed. That means checking up on her girls via social media, meeting for friendly updates or job advice, and taking phone calls in the middle of the night because jobs are scarce and they’re thinking about going back out on the street.
Now, when Brown visits her old neighborhood, many of the women she saw as a kid are still there. Many have told her they’re proud of what she’s done with her life. “That touched me,” she says with a slight tremor in her voice, adding, “Nobody does this work, in child welfare, for a paycheck. It’s not about a paycheck at all. It’s about how you see these children moving forward. Unfortunately, some of them come from horrible situations. Some of them just were dealt one bad hand and they wound up in a bad situation. But every child deserves the best.”
Laura Kenyon is a freelance writer and blogger who recently completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter.
* Not her real name.