Inside Track: She escaped from working the street on South Division
Leslie F. King, a victim of human trafficking/sexual exploitation, is now helping other women and girls escape to a better life.
It has been cynically called “the oldest profession” but, in reality, it is one of the most brutal and dehumanizing forms of slavery ever practiced.
“If the streets don’t kill us, we kill ourselves,” said Leslie F. King, who was prostituted on the streets of Grand Rapids for 20 years, beginning at age 15. She was an angry runaway, and the individual who prostituted her was an older man she thought was her boyfriend.
“I have been shot, I have been stabbed, I have been thrown out of a car on the expressway. I have been raped many, many times,” said King.
Her street smarts and determination to fight human trafficking caused her to start Sacred Beginnings Women’s Transitional Program eight years ago, which now has helped about 400 prostituted women, she said.
LESLIE F. KING
Andy Soper, coordinator of the Manasseh Project at Wedgwood Christian Services, said King is “an amazing survivor.” He noted some people now use the term “prostituted” in place of “prostitute” because “it removes that question of choice.”
The Manasseh Project provides a safe house for victims of sex-trafficking and other forms of abuse. Soper said 85 percent of the women who end up prostituted have a history of being sexually abused as children. Early, repeated abuse often leads a child to identify their personal value in sexual terms.
King’s father was a violent alcoholic who routinely beat her mother, King said, leaving her and her siblings terrorized. There were no loving hugs, no one saying ‘I love you,’ she said. When she was 8, a male relative about 20 years older came to live at their house. She would escape the misery downstairs by playing with her doll house in the attic; the relative began playing dolls with her and then began sexually abusing her. He warned her never to tell anyone, or her father would kill her mother.
The molestation went on for years. “That destroys a child,” she said.
At church she would hear that God protects little children, but she knew that wasn’t true.
“My spirituality went right out the window,” she said. She watched television shows that only depressed her, wondering why her family couldn’t be like “The Partridge Family” or “The Brady Bunch.”
As a young teen, King became rebellious at home and at school. By 15, she had had a child, who ended up in the care of her mother. One day she took off, a runaway from her life at home. A man saw her walking and stopped; he told her she was beautiful, and she went with him. The new “boyfriend” began spending money on her, and when she was picked up by the police for curfew violations, he sent someone to the police station to get her.
“The honeymoon lasted a month and a half,” said King. One day she was with a friend at his house, drinking until she passed out. King believes she was drugged. When she woke up, a strange man was on top of her, and her “boyfriend” was watching. King said later he asked her, “Did you think all of that was free?” He took her to a house where other girls were staying. They provided her with provocative clothes for working the street and showed her how to put on make-up. He threatened her not to tell anyone, or her family would be killed. She believed him.
“I was trained like a soldier,” she said, with the traffickers putting her on a South Division corner and telling her, “This is what you do.” King said too many people who see a prostituted girl or woman on a street corner don’t have any understanding of how she ended up there.
Before she escaped from the streets, King did, in fact, try to kill herself. “For some reason, God wouldn’t let me die,” she said.
It was July 4, 2000, when she consumed a lethal amount of drugs and alcohol to end it all. She said she felt herself dying and was compelled to scream out for God to help her. Then, she said, she felt something “so powerful, I knew I was going to be alright. That’s when the fight for my redemption was on. I’ve been doing God’s work ever since,” she said.
King got into Turning Point, a drug rehab program of the Salvation Army. Then she began staying at Rose Haven, a shelter for the prostituted run by the Dominican Sisters of the Good Shepherd Ministry in Grand Rapids. After a year, she said, she became a member of the Rose Haven staff, the first time a client had done that.
“I came out a fighter. No one was going to put me in a box. No one would be allowed to call me names anymore. I was going to stand” to help other women, said King.
While a client at Rose Haven, she faced the daunting challenge of finding a job; she had no résumé, just a police record. Her big break was being hired by AngelCare Home Health Care as a home health aide.
“AngelCare gave me my start,” she said. “They believed in me.”
After three years she landed a full-time job with the Grand Rapids Police Department’s Social Work and Police Partnership program and worked there for five years, helping prostituted women turn their lives around.
And somehow, in 2005, she started the nonprofit Sacred Beginnings and managed to buy a home she could share with other women she helped to escape from the street.
“My credit was so bad, you couldn’t staple nothing to it,” she said, but a kind real estate agent helped her. Now she has a couple of people and some volunteers working with her, and an “awesome board of directors.” Right now, Sacred Beginnings is looking for a second safe house, and four people are on the waiting list to live there. The next house should be located farther away from the center of the city, she said.
Does she fear revenge from the pimps who have lost their girls to Sacred Beginnings?
“If God brought me this far, I don’t need to worry about it,” she said, adding that the pimps “won’t mess with me. I still have family out there. My family is very proud of me.”
King said she is finishing her bachelor’s degree in social work and will start on a master’s degree in either social work or psychology.
Determining how many prostituted women are working the streets in Grand Rapids isn’t easy. Soper has heard from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department that there were more than 100 arrests last year, although Lt. William Nowicki, commander of the GRPD vice unit, said the arrest number was about half that.
Traditionally, most of the activity is in the warmer months of the year, but Nowicki said that is changing due to the Internet.
When asked how many women were involved locally in prostitution, Nowicki said, “because of the Internet, I would say it’s hundreds,” although he added probably only a handful actually walk the streets to find johns. “They can do it all by cell phone and computer,” he said.
Most of those arrested are adults, said Nowicki, but when it is a juvenile, “Somebody’s usually putting them out there to do that.”
King’s goal is to put that somebody out of business for good.