An Intellectual Desire
"Erika" was only four when she was placed in the foster care system after her pregnant mother tested positive for PCP. Though Erika was smart and did well in school, she became sexually active at an early age as a result of sexual abuse she had experienced as a child. When foster parents began to reject her because of her sexual behaviour, she turned to prostitution as a way of surviving on her own. By age fourteen she had dropped out of school, lived on the streets, and undergone multiple abortions.
Erika was one of the many children I worked with at the Juvenile Intake Office of the Washington, D.C., Superior Court. I met with children like her on a weekly basis to help them overcome their self-destructive behaviour, and referred them to rehabilitative programs so that their cases would not be sent to court. For children charged with more serious crimes, I conducted extensive interviews to obtain a comprehensive picture of their backgrounds, and wrote memorandums detailing my recommendations for each child's placement. At times, I argued for these recommendations in court over the recommendations of opposing attorneys who were oftentimes not as familiar with the entire case. Although working at the Superior Court was my first hand-on experience with juvenile law, I had been interested in children's legal rights ever since a serious crime was committed against someone close to me.
After seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch, I volunteered with "Amigos de las Americas," a program that works to promote sustainable development in Latin American countries. I lived in a small community in Honduras where it was normal for a family of fourteen to live on less than fifty cents a day. While I spent every day working with nearly all of the town's two hundred children, I developed the closest relationship with my thirteen-year-old neighbour, "Maria". Toward the end of my stay, Maria was raped by a local man. Her mother went to the police, who arrested the man but released him the next day because the family was unable to afford a lawyer. Because Maria was so young, the rest of the town dismissed her story, claiming that she was either lying or had brought it upon herself.
I remember seeing her mother collapsed and sobbing on the dirt floor, and the knot I felt in my throat as I held Maria with shaking hands. After that night, I knew that working to defend children like her had to be a part of my life. This experience motivated me to join the Board of Directors of Amnesty International, UCLA. In an effort to inspire more students to be involved in the fight against child sex abuse, we put on events publicizing children's rights issues, such as the child sex trade. Although there are over two million children in sexual slavery today, few laws exist that allow for the prosecution of such crimes, creating little pressure for change. We organized a weeklong event that incorporated film screenings, speakers (including a former child-slave from Sudan), and an active fund-raising campaign for groups that helped victims of child sex slavery. Through our efforts, we doubled group membership and raised more money than ever before with one event.
I have now had the opportunity to work with child victims of sexual abuse in many different contexts, and want to continue working on these and similar issues, especially at the international level. Each of the projects I did was rewarding, but I felt limited in what I was able to accomplish. I believe that a legal education will provide me with the tools necessary to create more substantive change. My experience at the Superior Court taught me that the legal system has the power to improve a person's life. When I last talked to Erika, she was finally happy living at home and had stopped having promiscuous sex. She passed a difficult test to enroll in a G.E.D. program, and now has dreams of becoming a firefighter.