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Former Prostitute Enters Law School
November 15, 2009 permalink
Wendy Babcock, a former CAS ward, former prostitute and advocate for Toronto's sex workers, has been accepted at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. She has appeared twice before in these columns, 2006 and 2008. Enclosed are an article on her law school admission, and another on the loss of her pre-teen son to children's aid.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Former Child Prostitute-Turned Law Student Vows To Change Canada’s Child Welfare Laws
By all standards, Wendy Babcock has beat the odds.
The former child prostitute-turned-activist was accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious law schools this year and her friends plan to hold a fundraiser Sunday to help her cover the $18,000 a year tuition.
“I’m currently just getting off of homelessness and I got into law school this year so my friends decided to throw me fundraiser to help me out,” she told CityNews.ca.
After suffering years of neglect, physical and sexual abuse from her mother and father, she ended up in the care of the Children’s Aid Society, but “aged out” at 15 and was forced into sex work to make ends meet.
“It was horrible. I was too young to get into a shelter -- you have to be 16 to get into a shelter -- Children’s Aid didn’t have any housing for me at the time, so I pretty much had to get into sex work to get a roof over my head and to be able to feed myself,” she explained.
She spent nine years walking the streets, which led to her passionate pursuit of sex workers’ and street kids’ rights.
Her years of activism earned her entrance into Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.
Babcock helped to establish Toronto Police’s Special Victims Unit, which is part of the force’s Sex Crimes Unit.
“It works to help sex workers report crimes without fear of being arrested for a prostitution-related offence,” she explained.
“That’s the main reason sex workers don’t report crimes and that’s why men feel free to be able to rape them and kill them because they know that, chances are, they won’t be caught.”
From 2003 to 2007 she was a member of the Sex Professionals of Canada, a group currently challenging Canada’s prostitution laws and she’s worked to create a number of programs, including the Safer Stroll Project, Regent Park Community Health Centre’s Sex Worker Drop-In and self-defence training for sex workers.
In 2008, she was the inaugural winner of the Toronto Board of Health's Public Health Champion Award.
Babcock, who doesn’t hold a high school diploma, plans to combine street level experience and academics to fight for changes to Canada’s child welfare laws.
“These laws go against Section 7 of our constitutional rights based on safety and liberty,” she said.
She’s already had a couple of job offers from people interested in pursuing child welfare reform.
“Most children who get into sex work -- over 50 per cent -- have been involved in the Children’s Aid Society,” she said, referring to a 1989 study, “which I imagine is much higher now.”
She’s disturbed by the fact children can legally be discharged from the system at 16 – she says she was “aged out” a year early.
“Children aren’t learning the life skills that they need to learn. A lot of them have to drop out of school in order to work, to be able to afford rent.”
Welfare reform is also on her list of priorities following law school. She said kids who have to leave the care of the CAS need social assistance to stay in school, but current regulations require they maintain a certain grade point average and attendance record.
“It can be hard getting good grades based on the fact that a lot of them have post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
Babcock credits her friends for helping her surmount the incredible obstacles in her life.
“I think I’m a little bit luckier than a lot of people,” she said.
“I have a lot of good friends that support me.”
Those friends have organized a fundraiser at Goodhandy’s nightclub Sunday, Nov. 22 starting at 7pm. A website has also been created for anyone who’d like to make a donation toward her tuition.
Love and Sex
All that she can’t leave behind
Rather than try to shake her troubled past, Wendy Babcock has used her experience as a teenaged sex worker to become a celebrated advocate and counsellor. But as she struggles to win the right to regain a relationship with her son, darker echoes of the pas
BY Kate Carraway March 04, 2009 21:03
Wendy Babcock climbs onto a couch and stands to gesture at a homemade poster hanging on the wall above it, which bears the title “Sex Workers Who Are Making Sex Work Safer” scrawled in marker. Four men, some chewing on bagels and cream cheese, listen intently as Babcock points to photos on the poster and excitedly reads aloud the biographies of 10-odd women, including local sex worker activist Valerie Scott, transsexual New Zealand politican Georgina Beyer and Annie Sprinkle, who gets a laugh for her “Ph.D. in sexology.”
Babcock steps off the couch and introduces herself to a man hesitantly standing just inside the doorway, welcoming him to an unusually slow Friday morning meeting of the Crack Users Project (CUP). Later, when she isn’t looking up Toronto Police Service contact information for a guy who lost his stuff during a bust or sympathizing with an older woman who was recently sold baking soda on the street, Babcock shows me the city’s online homicide database, pointing out how few of the females murdered in Toronto are listed, how few of the murdered sex workers.
I’m visiting Babcock, who has bright blue eyes and the energy of a 17-year-old day-camp counsellor, at the Regent Park Community Health Centre. The CUP program was developed by Street Health, where Babcock has worked for over six years.
Her work is her public identity: I first saw Babcock in a snapshot posted online. In it, she’s wearing a “SLUTS UNITE” shirt, sexy-librarian glasses and a smile, holding a sign that says “Hookers and Dykes Unite In the Fight For Our Rights.” Her way to the picket line, though, wasn’t via Riot Grrrl or a women’s studies degree.
When Wendy Babcock was 10, she left a difficult home life and moved in with a friend’s family. At 13, she was put in the care of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in Toronto. Two years later, at 15, Babcock was still considered a ward of the CAS, but was “aged out”: asked if she had any friends she could stay with. From there, the teenaged Babcock began work as a prostitute, a common occupation for young girls who find themselves with nothing.
Almost 14 years later, Babcock has leveraged her own experience with Children’s Aid, prostitution and street life into a career as an advocate and activist. Meanwhile, her young son remains in the CAS system, on the verge of being adopted, while Babcock remains in a long and unlikely struggle to regain custody. Though Babcock’s pursuit will probably be futile, her evolution from CAS kid to CAS agitator demonstrates that the way our system treats those who have, in fact, helped themselves often lacks humanity.
At 17, Babcock got pregnant, quit the sex trade and went on welfare. Soon enough, her son was born and her boyfriend moved in, but parenting didn’t come easily. “It was really difficult ... just because of my age and the lack of support that I had at the time,” she says. At 19, she was stripping and at 20, her son was taken from her by Children’s Aid when his father — by then her common-law husband — called Toronto’s CAS and told them that he and Wendy didn’t want him. Babcock came home, shocked to find a CAS worker and two police officers taking her son into their custody. Her boyfriend was there, too. “He was pretty much calm and getting ready to leave that night as well.” (He later gave up all parental rights, and Babcock hasn’t seen him in many years.)
Babcock grew depressed, and stopped doing sex work to attempt the straight life. She lost her apartment and moved into a shelter. Trying to get a job with little education or legit experience, she worked minimum-wage retail gigs and couldn’t make enough to live on. She returned to prostitution.
Eventually, Babcock moved into “Eva’s Phoenix,” a shelter named for Eva Smith, a social worker locally revered for her commitment to marginalized youth. Babcock found work in film and construction, but by the time she got adequate housing, the year-long CAS probation period was over, and her son was adopted out for the first time.
It was around then that Babcock was given a psychiatric evaluation that concluded she was “promiscuous.” That label has remained an emotional and probably legal albatross. Says Babcock, “It showed that my job as a sex worker — people viewed that as my own sexuality. I didn’t like that feeling of being judged. As a female, you get treated like such shit for sleeping around. The stigma [of being a sex worker] was confirmed by a professional. He thought that [my] job was actually [my] sexuality.”
It was at age 23, eight years after leaving the custody of the CAS herself, that Babcock found a part-time job as an outreach worker. For a year she saved to go to school at George Brown College and, since then, Babcock has become a commited student and activist, working in a variety of capacities with drug users, prostitutes, advocates and academics.
At the Crack Users Project, when we go outside for a smoke break, a man pops his head out the door and asks for a cigarette. Babcock gives him one and tells him that there’s free food in the meeting room, then turns to me to say how psyched she is to talk about toys and pleasure with a group of sex workers, and how to encourage them to use flavoured and textured condoms with their partners to make sex safer but distinct from sex with tricks.
Back inside, Babcock introduces me to a program participant named Linda, a small, warm woman wearing a gray Obama sweatshirt. Linda asks if I know who wrote Women Who Run with the Wolves, but I don’t remember. Linda and Babcock make plans to get falafels and go book shopping on Bloor Street later that week and, before Linda leaves, she thanks me for coming and makes sure to remind me that CAS has “their own boundaries, and their own limitations.”
Wendy Babcock’s ease with the policies and procedures of bodies like the courts and CAS, and with her friends and clients, appear to be in contradiction with the fact that she isn’t allowed to see her son. Babcock doesn’t know much about him anymore, like where he lives in care and what his life is like and whether or not he’s happy. Babcock says “Even just knowing how he’s doing. Are these [potential adoptive] parents good? Is he safe? It’s nerve-racking not knowing what’s going on. That’s really all I care about, is how he’s doing. The not knowing is terrifying.”
Babcock’s son’s first adoption didn’t work out, a rare occurence, and likely owing to his Asperger’s, a form of autism that can be difficult to contend with. Babcock’s current lawyer in her ongoing struggle to regain custody of her son, Elizabeth Dyke, says of the failed adoption “I haven’t been so close to anything so cruel, as to give him back. Jesus. How can you give back a child? I mean, he’s yours! They change the birth certificate.”
Danielle Koyama, a friend of Babcock’s and a co-worker at Street Health, says “Wendy is doing everything she can. She seems to be handling it well, I mean, she’s obviously upset by the situation but she’s strong, a strong person. She’s just doing what she can.”
I first met Babcock in early January, outside of a restaurant called True Love on Dundas Street near Jarvis. It had already closed, so we walked east to the Ontario Café, across from Babcock’s Street Health office. We sat at a table at the back, away from the groups of men eyeing us and eyeing my tape recorder. Now that her son is, again, up for adoption, and now that Babcock is in a different place than she was as a teenager hooker, she wants the opportunity to be a parent, or at least have some kind of contact with her child.
“[I] filed for custody, but I got rejected [because] normally the only people who can interrupt an adoption would be the adoptive family, the Children’s Aid Society and the birth mom. But because it’s the second adoption, I’m no longer considered his birth mother under the law.... In 2006 they started ‘Openness’ which would give a judge the power to say ‘Yes, Mom can have an open adoption,’ or ‘Biological Mom can have once-a-month visits.’ When he was first up for adoption, open adoptions in Canada ... [weren’t recognized] under the law.” Babcock pauses to order a salad, and continues, “We were rejected because the only people who can apply for Openness are the Children’s Aid Society, so we need them on our side, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”
A local lawyer with experience in family law who prefers to not be identified says, “Unless you’ve got a million dollars, you can’t fight [CAS].... There is no law. It’s just about who’s lucky and who’s not lucky.”
It remains very unlikely that Babcock will get custody, or even any information on her son’s well-being. Says Hanna Gavendo, a manager of Client Services at the Children’s Aid Society in Toronto, “Once an adoption is completed, we ordinarily have no contact with the adoptive family. We wouldn’t even have any information to pass on. We’re only mandated to provide service up until the completion of the [adoption] service.”
Babcock thinks her situation reflects badly on CAS. “It says something to their skills, that they’re taking away a lot of [former CAS-involved people’s] kids.”
At the Crack Users Project meeting, Babcock told me that she estimates more than 50 per cent of the people she works with came out of the Children’s Aid Society system. Though Babcock characterizes herself a “typical” product of CAS, her trajectory is unusual. Babcock is planning on either law school or a B.A. when she’s done at George Brown College’s Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor/Advocate program. She says, “As an activist, I’ve done what I can do without a law degree. I want to work in policy, breaking down barriers, particularly in child welfare. Nobody listens to you unless you have an alphabet after your name.” Babcock’s tactical plan is consistent with her approach to her custody battle. Though the process has been constant, expensive and numbing, she avoids histrionics, and speaks about it calmly and methodically, a hard-won result of being in and around the CAS for the bulk of her life. The best-case scenario, according to Babcock, is that the CAS “changes their policies.”
“I feel more drained. I’m kind of frustrated, like, ‘What more can I do to prove it to you guys?’” she says.
Toronto criminal lawyer Calvin Barry (who came to know Babcock through actor Woody Harrelson, who Babcock worked with on a film set) says, “She’s come a long way, and it she seems like she’s really made a lot of inroads and tried to make herself a productive person in society.”
Babcock is looking ahead to joining the province’s adoption registry, which sounds like another long shot: Babcock has the option of listing herself as a birth parent, but for her son to eventually find her through the registry he’d have to know the system and contact her of his own accord, doubtful for a child who may have an incomplete and somewhat damning sense of who his mother was. Babcock considers this her last hope, and clings to it. She counts on the fact that her son knows her full name, and says she’ll be reluctant to change it if she marries her boyfriend of eight years. She’s had the same phone number for a long time and, by now, has established herself as an outspoken activist for sex-workers’ rights and general doyenne of social activism, organization and care.
It’s those same qualities, though, that Babcock names as the reasons she’s an improbable candidate for the CAS to change their minds about. “One of the things they don’t like is that I’m not a reformed, apologetic sex worker. I’m still advocating.”
Babcock and I run into each other on Dundas Street on our way to Johnny Rockets, a faux-’50s diner in Yonge-Dundas Square where Babcock chose to meet. I’m wearing big, alien-esque studio headphones over an old Jays cap; Babcock is wearing a nametag, hanging on a lanyard made by African women, a remnant from the Harm Reduction conference she’s been attending alongside the Peel Regional Police’s Vice Unit. We’re the same age, 28, and we like each other, but we have no points of reference in common except for a shared disdain for authority, the kind you understand in a stranger from a well-placed eye roll.
She updates me on her son’s adoption process, still in limbo. CAS has responded to an enquiry from Dyke confirming that Babcock’s son has would receive independent legal counsel, which is a tiny victory. At least it’s acknowledgement of Babcock’s attempts to make herself heard. “My hopes are low right now. CAS sees [my case] as a personal attack on them. They don’t want to deal with us at all,” she says.
In 2008, Babcock was given the inaugural Public Health Champion Award, presented to her by Mayor David Miller. Her current project is the Bad Date Book, a monthly compilation of crimes against local sex workers and the plate numbers of known offenders. Babcock grins as she tells me that more women are reporting the kinds of crimes that are often ignored by police. There’s also the “Emergency Response Sheet” developed by the Bad Date Coalition (a group Babcock founded and chairs), which Babcock says is “sort of like a wish list,” which includes information on what to do if a sex worker is hurt or goes missing — who should deal with her landlord and what should become of her pets.
Eating lunch, she stops to say of the CAS, “It seems like nothing I can do is good enough for them,” her “Wendy” nametag from the conference still hanging around her neck.
Source: Eye Weekly