Independence Days

It’s a Monday afternoon, and women in green jumpsuits are passing the time in their crowded dorm at the city jail near Raytown Road and Interstate 435. Some sprawl on plastic beds strewn with blankets and thin pillows. A few read well-thumbed books from the jail library.

A couple of strangers walk in wearing street clothes, and a guard calls out, “Anybody want to watch a video?”

“Anything to get out of this place,” one woman says with a shrug.

So a dozen female convicts walk in jail-issue flip-flops across a grassy courtyard, serenaded by catcalls from the men hanging out in a fenced recreation yard to their right.

The women file into the visiting area, where they unfold metal chairs and sit down. Someone has rolled a television into the room, and a video begins to play.

“Prostitution was easy because that’s all men ever approached me for anyway,” a woman on the video explains. “‘It’s time to fuck. Take your clothes off.’ So I figured that’s all I had going for me. Take your clothes off, get buck naked, get paid, and then feel like shit and go get high.”

The inmates watch as Norma, a former prostitute who was addicted to heroin for 21 years, roams the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, hugging bedraggled hookers who know her by name. Police photos of hopeless prostitutes flash on the screen, each face carved by years of drug addiction, beatings and rapes.

“My name is Saundra Domingue, and I am a 28-year heroin user,” a voice says as a mug shot shows a slit-eyed hooker with wild hair. Then the camera closes in on a pretty, smiling woman with glowing skin — today’s Sondra — who now works for a prostitute recovery program in San Francisco.

The inmates gasp at the disparate images.

After the video, Kristy Childs and Samantha Steeves, who are visiting the Municipal Correctional Institution, suggest that the women move their chairs into a circle.

Childs spent eighteen years as a streetwalker. Steeves worked as a stripper. Both were dope addicts. They aren’t out to judge anyone, Steeves tells the inmates.

One woman, “Donna,” admits she was a prostitute on Independence Avenue for thirteen years. A few months ago, she went into a drug-treatment program and was clean for the first time in years. After she got out, though, it wasn’t long before she bought a crack pipe. She gave it to another addict, she says, but got high an hour later anyway.

“When I hit on that pipe, I felt like shit,” she says. “I want to stay clean so bad. I don’t want to go back out to Independence Avenue. I just feel like all I know how to do is mess up.”

Social workers at the Missouri Division of Family Services have taken away Donna’s children, who live in foster homes. She can’t forgive herself. “What kind of person gives up her own kids for crack?” she asks.

“It’s not an overnight process,” Steeves tells her. “Just the fact that you gave that crack pipe to someone else the first time is still progress.”

“I was always told I was a no-good piece of shit, and that’s all I’m going to be all my life,” another woman says. “I don’t have any idea how to accept real love. The self I see doing drugs and the self I see walking the streets selling my body, I know that’s not me.”

One woman fears that even if she stays clean after she gets out of jail, her old running buddies will pull her back.

Childs tells them she’s been clean for ten years, so they can hang out with her.

Childs’ turnaround hasn’t been easy. Even sitting among these inmates as a confident woman who has left her past behind, she knows that she and her family are still struggling with the effects of a lifetime of poor choices. She is able to help women she barely knows. But her own daughter has fallen into a dangerous lifestyle of drugs and violence.

Childs grew up in Joplin. At thirteen, tired of being beaten and ridiculed by her stepfather, Childs hitched a ride with a trucker on Highway 71 and eventually headed west.

It was 1975, and the small-town runaway made easy prey. A driver would buy her a chicken-fried-steak dinner and want sex in return. A blow job for a can of soup. She owed them, they told her.

“These were grown men,” Childs recalls. “Some of them were old enough to be my grandfather.”

Childs ended up in Denver, where she shared a grimy house and a platonic friendship with a junkie named Harvey. They had no electricity, heat or running water.

Harvey warned Childs that he’d throw her out if she ever used heroin. But another junkie, called Space Ghost, tied off her arm one afternoon on an apartment rooftop. He injected the warm narcotic into her vein, and Childs threw up. But the ensuing euphoria soon had her hooked.

When gangrene infected Harvey’s foot and he couldn’t afford medicine, Childs knew how to earn money for the prescription. One night, she slipped out the door and headed for nearby Colfax Avenue.

“Use condoms,” hookers told her. “When you get into a car, make sure there’s a handle inside the passenger door. Don’t get in if you don’t see a lock.”

“I was trying to fit in somewhere,” Childs recalls. “I looked up to Harvey, and in some weird way, I wanted to be like him.” When he found out she was using heroin, though, he made good on his warning.

Childs ended up homeless, living in a park. One night she woke up to find four men standing over her. They forced Childs into a car and drove to a house across town, where nine men gang-raped her for hours before leaving her passed out on the bed. When she awoke, she gathered her clothes from the floor and cracked open the bedroom door. Moonlight poured from a window into the darkened living room, where one of the rapists sat alone on a couch, cradling his head.

“Why did you do that to me?” Childs asked.

The man looked away and pointed to the door. Childs walked to a bar, where she stood in front of a pay phone for five minutes. There was no one to call.

Childs sank deeper into her addiction. Police arrested her when she pulled a knife on a man in an attempted robbery. The cops called her parents, who came and took her back to Joplin. Childs got off heroin but continued to run wild. When she was nineteen, she married a man named David, and they moved to Rogers, Arkansas, a small town near Fayetteville. That same year, they had a daughter, Stephanie.

The baby cried all the time, and Childs was overwhelmed. David drank heavily, and Childs started dropping acid. The couple moved back to Joplin when she was twenty. By that time, the marriage was over.

Desperate for money, Childs resumed the only job she’d ever known. She had two steady clients, a police officer and a prominent businessman who paid her enough to get by. One night, she got drunk and called her mom. “I’m still shooting up with drugs,” she slurred. The next day, Childs’ mother took Stephanie to live with her.

Childs moved to Kansas City.

“My idea was to make money and get my daughter back,” Childs recalls. Over the next four years, she drifted from pimp to pimp. One would poke her in the eye with his long index fingernail. Another beat her with a tree branch in a school yard until she vomited.

Childs tried to be a good mother, though. Every Christmas, she mailed presents to Stephanie in Joplin. On Stephanie’s third birthday, she sent a stuffed teddy bear; when her girl turned five, Childs mailed a Cabbage Patch doll. The next year, Childs picked out a hip little outfit for Stephanie— black pants and a black shirt with leather fringe.

She hoped Stephanie would know that she had a mother somewhere, a lady who sent brightly wrapped packages from far away. Childs preferred that mysterious role. It was better to let Stephanie fantasize about who her mother might be than to let her see the woman she’d become.

In the early ’90s, Childs worked the corner of Linwood and Main. Strolling Troost, she earned enough money to keep an apartment at the Newbern on Armour Boulevard. She was in and out of jail, most of the time high on PCP.

At 30, Childs feared there was no escape from her miserable life. After working the streets each night, she would say a prayer. “God, just let me die if there’s nothing more than this for me.”

She’d had abortions. Now she suspected she was pregnant again. She thought of Stephanie. She’d already failed as a parent once. There was no way she could try again.

Childs went to Planned Parenthood to get a pregnancy test and schedule another abortion. But before she went back for the appointment, she started spotting blood. At the hospital, a doctor did a sonogram — and Childs listened to the heartbeat of her unborn son.

God reached down to her that moment, Childs says. She heard a voice that wasn’t coming from anyone in the room.

You will learn to forgive yourself. Because I forgave you when you asked me to. I’m going to make a way out of that life. I have something else for you to do.

This time, she decided, she would be there for her child. She stopped doing drugs and quit smoking. Staying with friends, she read storybooks to her unborn son and lulled him with classical music. He was born in 1993. Over the years, constantly worried that she’d have an accident and be unable to work, Childs had stashed rolls of cash in an old sock. Now she and her son were living on the $10,000 she had saved.

Since her spiritual experience, Childs had shunned the street crowd. But she had kept in touch with a young prostitute she’d befriended at a drug house years before, when the girl was fifteen. Childs saw herself in Veronica, who had run away from a sexually abusive father.

Childs watched Veronica scrape to get by while dealers made her give them oral sex in exchange for a place to stay. One day Veronica told Childs that her father had taught her to masturbate. He was in prison now for raping her, she told Childs, and Veronica’s mom blamed her daughter.

“You don’t have to go back there,” Childs told her. “You can make your own money. You can take care of yourself.”

Before long, Veronica turned tricks on the same midtown route as Childs.

Although Childs was clean, Veronica still came to visit her. Two weeks after she turned 21, Veronica dropped by Childs’ house with a bottle of Hot Damn cinnamon schnapps — “Legally bought,” she announced proudly. Veronica would be back after work that night, she said, and the two would share a drink.

The next day, police found Veronica’s body in the bushes at Penn Valley Park.

When she found out about Veronica’s murder, Childs sat at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee. The man who had killed her friend was likely up and about as well, she thought. Having his breakfast. Going about his day with little concern for Veronica’s now-motherless children. Had the killer assumed no one could have loved the woman he’d strangled?

Staring at Veronica’s unopened bottle of liquor, Childs wondered about her own role in her friend’s death. She had taught Veronica the only way she knew to survive, but Veronica hadn’t survived.

Childs put everything in storage and stayed at a homeless shelter for a month. Now that she had a baby, she was able to get money from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and she moved into public housing at a project at 8th and Mill in Kansas City, Kansas. But the money she’d saved was dwindling, and Childs found that she was too afraid to give up entirely what she knew would be a steady source of income. So she placed an ad offering her services as an escort and kept a couple of regular, safe clients.

As she struggled to improve her life, though, her strained relationship with her mother back in Joplin deteriorated. Childs’ mother — who had long ago taken the mother role for Childs’ daughter — was angry about Childs’ unplanned pregnancy and decision to have the child. She didn’t want to tell Stephanie she now had a half-brother.

Childs was changing, and it seemed to her that her mother was trying to drag her down. In the same way she’d kept herself away from her old street crowd, Childs now cut off contact with her family — including Stephanie. A year and a half later, though, Childs got an unexpected phone call from her mother.

Stephanie, now thirteen, wanted to come to Kansas City to live with her mom.

“I slowly sat down on the floor,” Childs says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Slowly, the two formed a tenuous bond. Stephanie began to visit her mother regularly. One weekend they went to the state fair in Sedalia. Another time, they shopped. Sometimes they just hung out at Childs’ house, attempting to get reacquainted. After a couple of months, Stephanie moved in.

Their new relationship proved difficult. The two barely knew each other, and Childs now had a two-year-old son. Stephanie had assumed that life with her mother would be one big party — she ran with a rough crowd and idealized Childs’ dangerous past. Stephanie grew rebellious, and Childs signed them up for family counseling at Wyandot Mental Health Center.

“I let her know how sick I once was, that she had actually been better off with my mother,” Childs recalls.

But Stephanie was sick, too. She suffered mood swings and volatile outbursts, and when she was fifteen, doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. Childs sent her daughter to Crittenton Behavioral Health, a psychiatric hospital for children, where she stayed until she was seventeen.

Between visits and therapy with Stephanie, Childs took classes at Kansas City Community College to get her G.E.D. She’d always been told she was stupid, but she aced the series of tests. One night she noticed a flier advertising Keyboards to Success, a computer-training and job-placement class at El Centro, a social-service agency in Kansas City, Kansas.

Childs spent six weeks going to classes Monday through Friday, then landed a job interview with the Kansas City, Kansas, Chamber of Commerce. Childs dreaded the interrogation.

“I was prepared to lie,” Childs says. “I was going to tell them I had been a housewife and was recently divorced.” She’d trained on computers, she would tell them. And she was a good team player.

But no one asked the questions she feared. Instead, the interviewer wanted to know, “If you could do anything, what would it be?”

“I’d win the lottery and open a safe place for youth in every major city,” Childs answered. She got the job.

Now that she was going to work as a staff assistant and event organizer, Childs gave up prostitution for good.

She stayed at the Chamber of Commerce for two years, then took a job as a case manager for El Centro clients who were themselves enrolled in the Keyboards to Success course. She bought a ranch-style house on a quiet street near downtown Kansas City, Kansas.

One day at lunch, she found herself telling Sister Linda Roth, the Keyboard class coordinator, that she’d been a prostitute since she was thirteen. A few weeks later, Roth stopped by Childs’ desk.

“You’re going to get a call about a job,” Roth told her. “It’s got your name written all over it.”

Roth had spoken about Childs to Therese Horvat, a Kansas City woman who had received a grant to start a recovery organization for prostitutes. After the two women met, Horvat put Childs in charge of the effort at an annual salary of $25,000.

Childs named the new organization after her murdered friend.

And with Veronica’s Voice, Childs finally felt as if her life made sense.

Around the same time, Samantha Steeves was living across town in Waldo, at home with her baby son, devouring self-help books and trying to figure out how her life had gone so wrong.

Steeves had come from a middle-class background. In high school, she had been popular, a pom-pom girl. But when she was by herself, Steeves felt depressed and lonely, so she sought sex with boys. In college at the University of Kansas, Steeves hung out with a philosophical, artsy crowd — bohemians who gulped prescription pills, drank and smoked pot.

Through these friends, Steeves met a woman who danced at The Flamingo in Lawrence. One night, she says, she tried on her friend’s thong bikini and a pair of 6-inch heels. “You look good,” the stripper told her. She said Steeves could make a lot of money at the club.

Fueled by vodka and cranberry juice, Steeves started dancing professionally that night. “It gave me a rush the first time,” she recalls. “What better thing for someone who wants to fill that void than to be the center of attention?”

Soon Steeves’ life revolved around drugs, alcohol and men with money. She dropped out of college and danced in high heels, boas and long, black gloves. At The Flamingo, she attracted businessmen. Dancing four nights a week, Steeves was pulling in as much as $500 a night in tips — and snorting a gram of cocaine during each seven-hour shift. By the time she was 24, Steeves’ life was a disaster.

“I would throw up a lot. My body was kind of messed up,” she says. One weekend she flew to Cincinnati to party with friends. She had suspected she might be pregnant, and on the flight back to Kansas City, she started bleeding.

A doctor on the plane determined that Steeves was having a miscarriage. The pilot made an emergency landing in Indianapolis, and paramedics carried her down the narrow aisle on a stretcher.

She remembers a little boy asking, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that lady?”

At the hospital, doctors pumped morphine into her and wanted to release her. She had three dollars. Nurses were trying to find Steeves a place to stay when the hospital received an unexpected phone call. It was the president of the airline, concerned about the ailing passenger.

The airline sent a driver to take Steeves to a hotel. She wondered groggily about the man who had paid for her room. I’m not in the mood for this tonight, she thought.

But he wanted nothing more than her safety. The next day, he met her at the airport and put her on a flight home. Maybe some people did things out of kindness, not because they expected something in return, Steeves thought.

A few months later, she quit the strip club — and went to the opposite extreme, joining a women’s Bible study group. She married, and in 1999 she had a son, whom she stayed home to raise.

She also started trying to figure out what had happened to her. Steeves’ parents had divorced when she was five. Her mother had moved away, leaving Steeves and her two sisters with their father. She remembered visiting her mother in Salida, Colorado, when she was six, and she knew that some men had broken into the home. Many years later, she had gotten drunk one night and called her mother. “What happened at the apartment in Salida?” she asked. Steeves had been raped during the break-in, her mother told her.

Steeves read about other women who had been molested as children. Their emotional wounds often lingered into adulthood, filling them with shame and a sense of unworthiness and ruining their relationships. Steeves decided to try to help other women.

One morning, she saw an article in The Kansas City Star about a woman who wanted to open a house for former prostitutes. Steeves called to set up a meeting with the woman, who was already thinking about trying to work with Veronica’s Voice. That morning, Kristy Childs sat at a grimy table at Nichols Lunch, awaiting Steeves’ arrival. She saw a perky blonde step out of a green SUV.

“I’m like, oh, my gosh, this is not her,” Childs recalls. “She had all this preppiness.”

Steeves walked in and scanned the room. “OK, this is her,” Childs thought. “She’ll be great to get money for us.”

Steeves had her own first impression.

“I’d never seen a white girl with a gold tooth before,” Steeves says. Although the new organization would be unable to pay her, Steeves volunteered to help expand Veronica’s Voice.

Steeves had never thought of herself as a prostitute. She’d put a feminist spin on stripping, telling judgmental women that she had the right to express herself sexually.

Childs fascinated her with tales of hookers named Shaky, Little Momma and Kay-Kay. A fellow hooker had once dubbed Childs “Stuff,” because she had “the right stuff.” For a while, Childs had sheared one side of her head, stenciling that moniker into the fine hairs.

Steeves came to believe that she had sold herself just like women on the street. “Even though the experiences we had were so different, what that did to us on a spiritual level was very much the same,” she says.

The two women would work all night, studying the sex industry. They discovered that, on average, women enter street prostitution at age thirteen. Around 80 percent of prostitutes were sexually abused, often the victims of incest. A majority of prostitutes suffer the same post-traumatic stress disorder that plagues combat veterans and rape victims. Steeves and Childs were appalled by a Web site advertising “prostitution vacations” — holiday excursions allowing men to travel abroad to have sex with children. And they recoiled at a police report documenting a prostitute’s death — it was stamped “NHI” — No Human Involved.

In 2001, the Veronica’s Voice board of directors hired Steeves as the program’s assistant coordinator at a salary of $17,500 a year.

By then, Childs’ daughter Stephanie was nineteen years old and out on her own. She had an eighteen-month-old son by one man and was pregnant by another. Untreated mental illness sent her into explosions of anger, causing her neighbors in the public housing project to call the police. She once tried to throw hot grease on a neighbor; another time, she tangled with a woman who ended up punching her in the face.

But Stephanie had friends at the complex who congregated at her apartment to watch TV and party. One of those friends tells the Pitch that Stephanie “had a big heart but trusted people too easily.”

Childs worried about her daughter’s chaotic life.

“She ran her mouth,” Childs says. “She wanted to be one of the rough ones. But she was extremely naïve and would get in high-risk situations.”

Childs tried to tell Stephanie that just because men went to bed with her didn’t mean they loved her. Sex wasn’t the way to fill a void.

Like her own mother had done with her, Childs took Stephanie’s two-year-old son and brought him home to live with her. (Stephanie’s four-month-old son went to live with his father’s mother.) Childs stayed in touch with her daughter, hoping that Stephanie would one day turn her life around like the women she was working with in Veronica’s Voice.

Childs and Steeves had operated mainly in Kansas City, Kansas, talking to women in the Wyandotte County Jail and walking Central Avenue, handing out bags of shampoo, bottled water, snack crackers and cards with the phone number for the Veronica’s Voice crisis line. Now they wanted to take Veronica’s Voice citywide.

Steeves and Childs had long been inspired by a group of women in San Francisco that says it has helped 800 women out of prostitution. The former hookers in San Francisco dubbed their effort the SAGE Project, for Standing Against Global Exploitation. Steeves and Childs had shown SAGE’s video to inmates and neighborhood associations; now they needed to visit the SAGE Project to learn more.

“We needed information, and we needed it a long time ago,” Childs says. They especially wanted to learn about SAGE’s John School, where former prostitutes teach a one-day, court-ordered class for busted johns. Four thousand men have attended the class; only fourteen of them have been arrested a second time for soliciting a prostitute.

Last July, the Reverend Lee Chiaramonte of Independence Boulevard Christian Church offered Childs and Steeves a rent-free space in her church basement on Gladstone Boulevard — on the corner of a street notorious for its crack-addicted hookers and pimps. On Independence Avenue, women swayed along the sidewalks, sometimes accompanied by men who traded them for drug money. In September, Steeves and Childs planned to open a drop-in center where any hooker could take a shower, pick up clean clothes, condoms, hand lotion or tampons. There, the women could find someone to talk to.

Early on a Sunday morning in August 2002, Steeves and Childs flew to San Francisco to meet their mentors.

The next morning, Childs and Steeves rang the buzzer on an iron gate across the street from a strip club in San Francisco’s Mission District. By then, they’d seen the SAGE video so many times they could recite it line by line.

They met Tracy, a former junkie who, in the video, stabs a needle into her leg in a mattress-littered alley. Now she teaches classes on domestic violence.

Then they met SAGE founder Norma Hotaling.

“When I saw Norma, I started jumping up and down,” Childs recalls. “She was my big celebrity person.”

They toured the group’s two-story building and sat in on classes about HIV, anger management, sexual trauma and how to prevent relapsing into drug addiction.

Steeves and Childs scanned the rooms, amazed at what they saw. As soothing new-age music played, strung-out hookers sipped steaming cups of herbal detox tea. Women snoozed peacefully under the fingers of massage therapists. Others, acupuncture needles poking from their ears, seemed relaxed and tranquil.

“I thought, how cool is this?” Childs says. “These women, some of them still in prostitution, can come in and be around other women who’ve been through or are going through the same thing, and they can just be totally honest about it. It was like, sister, we been through the same shit.”

Each night, Steeves and Childs stayed up late in their hotel room going over everything they’d learned. The Veronica’s Voice drop-in center had been a good idea. But now the two women had a greater vision. They would help prostitutes heal their minds, bodies and spirits.

They would teach classes. Lawyers would visit the church basement to answer questions from streetwalkers. Therapists from Swope Parkway Mental Health would come to the center to counsel the women. Maybe Steeves’ sister could teach a yoga class.

Steeves and Childs were scheduled to sit in on SAGE’s successful John School on Saturday.

But on Thursday morning, as the pair chatted with workers in the SAGE office, Childs’ cell phone rang.

That’s weird, Steeves thought.

Everyone back home knew they were in San Francisco, and they’d left instructions on their voice mail about other people to call in case of a crisis.

“Who is it?” Childs asked the caller. “Tell me.”

Then she began wailing and dropped to the floor. “No! No! No!” she cried.

Staffers at SAGE rushed to her aid. The office was well-equipped to handle whatever was happening. That afternoon, in a calm moment, Childs turned to her friend.

“Call my son’s baby-sitter,” Childs told Steeves. “I don’t want him to see his sister’s apartment on the news with bodies coming out of it.”

A few weeks earlier, someone had robbed Stephanie’s apartment at 4015 Barber Court, in a public housing project just south of Metropolitan Avenue. Thieves had taken DVDs belonging to Dion Walker, a man Stephanie had brought home to live with her. He was initially going to help her pay the bills, a friend would later testify. According to preliminary-hearing testimony, Walker made Stephanie sign a contract to pay him $2,000 for the stolen DVDs.

Stephanie called the police a couple of weeks later, saying she was scared of Walker. “She indicated that Walker told her he would wipe her off the face of the planet and take her body to California,” an officer would testify later.

Police arrested Walker during a domestic-disturbance call, but he didn’t stay locked up for long. After he was released, he moved out of Stephanie’s apartment, but she remained frightened of him. “He’s going to kill me,” Stephanie told a friend.

“She told me she was terrified,” that friend later testified in court.

Around 9 p.m. on August 19, 2002, a neighbor saw two men knock on Stephanie’s front door and go inside.

When her friends didn’t hear from her for three days, they called the police.

The apartment manager let officers into Stephanie’s apartment, where they found her lying on the floor beside her sofa in a pool of dried blood, the back of her head blown off by a shotgun.

Upstairs, they found James E. Brown Jr., a friend who’d been staying with her. Brown had been hog-tied with appliance cords and shot in the face at close range. His partially decomposed body lay folded on the blood-stained bed.

Seventy-five people attended Stephanie’s closed-casket funeral in Joplin. One of Stephanie’s friends talked about her sense of humor. Mourners listened to a recording of Regina Bell singing “If I Could,” a ballad Childs had often sung to her teen-age daughter.

In the front row, Childs sat in shock.

Steeves had always seen Childs as a strong woman. In the weeks after Stephanie’s death, though, Childs could barely function. She doubted she could continue with Veronica’s Voice.

Steeves took on the extra load.

She got late-night calls from desperate prostitutes. “Samantha, I need you to come pick me up,” pleaded one caller who’d been kicked out of drug rehab for refusing her anti-psychotic medication. After Steeves arrived at 11th and Benton Boulevard, she tried to take the woman to a psychiatric hospital where the woman had been a patient before. But when a receiving nurse questioned the woman, she stared blankly ahead and refused to answer. The hospital couldn’t admit the woman if she didn’t cooperate, the nurse told Steeves.

Steeves took her to the City Union Mission, where Veronica’s Voice reserved a room for emergencies. The supervisor had to OK it first, the intake staffer told her, but he was gone for the night.

The woman directed Steeves to her mother’s house. She knocked on the door while Steeves waited in the car. Inside the house, a television glowed behind the curtains but no one answered.

“Just drop me off at 12th and Prospect,” she told Steeves. But after trekking around town for three hours, Steeves finally convinced the woman to admit herself to Western Missouri Mental Health Center, the state psychiatric hospital in midtown.

Steeves got another call early one Sunday morning.

“It’s really cold, and I’m outside,” a woman wailed. “I’m at the corner of 11th and Paseo.”

“Are you in a domestic-violence situation?” Steeves asked.

“Yeah, you could say that.”

The woman told Steeves she’d been held captive in a basement of a house nearby. She begged Steeves to stay on the phone. When Steeves arrived, the disheveled woman climbed into the car, manic and apologetic.

“I’m so embarrassed to be looking like this in your car. I know you’ve got other things to do,” she sobbed.

“Listen, this is what I do,” Steeves told her. “I used to work in the sex industry, and this is what I do.”

The frazzled woman glared at her dirty fingernails. “I didn’t always do this,” she said. “I used to have such pretty hands.”

Steeves called a battered women’s shelter, but no beds were available, so Steeves took her to the City Union Mission, too. Two days later, when Steeves went to the shelter to visit her, the woman was gone.

Veronica’s Voice was supposed to have opened its drop-in center last September. But that month, the church-basement storage space was still filled with dusty furniture and boxes. The walls hadn’t been painted.

That month in Wyandotte County, District Attorney Nick Tomasic charged Dion Walker with two counts of first-degree murder for the slayings of Stephanie Childs and James E. Brown Jr.

Steeves spoke to Childs daily. Everything at Veronica’s Voice was under control, Steeves told her. Steeves made phone calls to municipal judges, trying to arrange a meeting in which she and Childs would ask them to order prostitutes to their classes instead of to jail.

One week in October, Childs showed up at the drop-in center and painted the office lavender and teal.

She and Steeves cleaned the place, and Childs brought in Stephanie’s old sofa and a couple of end tables. They posted fliers about domestic violence, sexual abuse and sexually transmitted diseases on a huge bulletin board. Childs hung donated clothes in the closet, and Steeves put scented candles around the room.

In October they opened for three days a week, calling their place the STAR Center — for Sex workers Trauma and Recovery.

Childs knew she couldn’t abandon the work she’d begun.

The two women had put together a workbook for a group they would call Unhooked, and in November they started teaching the twelve-week course at Northstar, a drug-treatment center in the Old Trinity Lutheran Hospital building near Penn Valley Park.

In December, the Kauffman Foundation gave Veronica’s Voice a $15,000 grant, which COMBAT, Kansas City’s anti-drug program, has said it will match. Childs and Steeves replaced most of their original board of directors (including Therese Horvat, who had originally hired Childs) with people who shared their vision of a citywide organization with innovative ideas.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Childs and Steeves walked into the municipal courthouse in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. They hoped to convince the judges to order prostitution-related offenders to their classes as a condition of probation or diversion. Steeves and Childs brought résumés.

The career objective of Steeves’ résumé: “To use my life experience of exploitation and trauma to empower women in like situations and serve as a bridge to recovery.” Her work experience: 5 years in the commercial sex industry, 11 years of drug addiction and 25 years of violence and abuse.

Childs had her own qualifications: 24 years living in prostitution, drug addiction and violence.

“We had no idea what would happen,” Steeves says.

The judges wanted to know how their classes were funded. Would women have to turn tricks to earn enough to pay for their recovery?

There wasn’t any cost for their program, Childs assured the judges.

At first, Presiding Judge John Williams said that sending prostitutes to a center on Independence Avenue was like ordering an alcoholic to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in a bar — women might be tempted to buy crack if they went back to their old playground.

Williams was impressed with Steeves and Childs, though. He came around.

Each year, Williams has seen hundreds of women arrested for prostitution-related offenses. No one else had stepped forward to help them. Childs and Steeves are readily available to those women, he tells the Pitch, and they offer a long-term program he thinks might help.

“They don’t have the social skills to get a job,” Williams says. “Add the crack and it’s a vicious cycle. You need something other than putting them in jail for thirty days. They get out, and they still don’t have a job or the discipline to get one.”

Drug addicts aren’t always on the same timetable as the rest of society, Williams says. They may miss an appointment or two. But Veronica’s Voice is a good place for them to try to repair their fractured lives.

This month, Williams and Judge Joseph Locasio began sending women to Veronica’s Voice for assessments. A judge then reviews Childs’ and Steeves’ opinions of how the offender will benefit from what they offer.

Women ordered to attend the STAR Center must show up for the Friday support group, where current and former sex workers talk about their lives. Each offender must complete between 30 and 120 hours of service, with a minimum of three hours a week.

The Friday group is mandatory, Steeves says, “because that’s the talking part of it.” But the women select for themselves the classes that will fulfill the rest of the required hours. Steeves says that because most of these women have had few choices so far, it’s important for them to have options when it comes to their recovery.

Swope Parkway Mental Health Center is ready to send therapists to the STAR Center to conduct art and talk therapy.

Yoga classes have already begun. At one recent session, Steeves’ 24-year-old sister, Kalen, extolled the benefits of the ancient Hindu art to Maria Frencher, a former stripper and crack addict, and Kim, who used to be a call girl. Misalignments will be corrected, she told them. Yoga will strengthen their immune systems. The women struck a warrior pose, then lay on their backs, legs arched behind their heads. They had neglected their bodies for too long, they laughingly admitted to each other. The yoga newcomers seemed like any group of groaning women anywhere, searching for holistic healing.

Veronica’s Voice can document a few successes. The first Unhooked group at Northstar will graduate this week. Frencher, who has just completed the course, often sold her body to drug dealers for crack. Now she’s drug-free and trying to get her children back from state custody. She has started her own program to help inner-city kids stay out of gangs and off drugs.

“I still have thoughts about what I did,” Frencher says. “I was able to tell Kristy and Samantha all those secret thoughts you never tell anybody. They helped me cope.”

One recent afternoon at the STAR center, an East Division police officer stopped by with a plastic bag full of samples of Mary Kay cosmetics his wife had stockpiled over the years. Another cop came by later with a box of sweaters. A woman who still works as a prostitute in the West Bottoms lounged on a couch.

Bring Veronica’s Voice all the women you can, she told the cops. “Drag ’em in here by the hair — if they got any.”

“The worst time for me is at night, trying to get myself to stop thinking about it,” Childs says, recalling Stephanie’s murder. “The grief is so painful. Just today, I thought I saw Stephanie walking down Central Avenue.”

Like a lot of young people, Stephanie was trying to find her own way in life, Childs says. She struggles with the same guilt she felt after Veronica’s murder. She hadn’t been around when her daughter was a child. She hadn’t even been there for herself.

Dion Walker remains in custody at Wyandotte County Jail. No trial date has been set.

On Independence Avenue, snow blankets the Friday-morning sidewalks. Business is slow. Only a couple of worn-looking women walk aimlessly in the cold.

Down the street, inside Independence Boulevard Christian Church, sunlight streams in through the 6-foot windows of a carpeted room. A pool table is shoved against one wall. Four yoga mats lie on the floor.

Samantha Steeves rushes into the church alone. She hasn’t brought the two women she’d offered to drive to class.

“They were high,” she says. “They couldn’t come.”

Steeves met the two streetwalkers the week before. She gave them shopping bags filled with toothpaste, hand lotion, candy bars and a Veronica’s Voice card. They’d agreed to come to yoga class and check out the STAR Center. As she waited outside their house in her idling car, though, only one woman emerged.

“I just did a line,” she told Steeves. “And we’re getting ready to smoke a blunt. I can’t come this morning.”

“That’s OK,” Steeves said. “You guys can be real with me. You can come by another time.”

“I’ve got your number programmed into my phone,” the woman told Steeves. She turned to walk back toward the house.

“Hey, you guys are cool,” she called out on her way back inside. “You my niggaz.”

Categories: News