Daphna Edwards Ziman was in her Tudor-style Beverly Hills home, speaking urgently into the telephone to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ziman’s organization, Children Uniting Nations, was about to hold its sixth annual conference in Washington, D.C., gathering lawmakers across the political spectrum, from Nancy Pelosi to Michele Bachmann, to battle the sex trafficking of children in the United States.
“Connie Rice, you can help change this with me,” said Ziman, who has been an indefatigable advocate for foster kids and abused children since rescuing her own daughter Michele, now 23, from a homeless shelter 18 years ago.
The philanthropist and activist recently has employed a novel technique to educate the public about minors forced into prostitution: She has written a thriller, “The Gray Zone,” about a fierce young woman who, after her mother’s murder, has survived horrific foster homes and sexual slavery. Now 24, the fictional Kelly Jensen has become a daring and seductive criminal — a master of disguise and identity theft — in order to protect the lives of her own two children and to bring down a ruthless operation subjecting foster children to sexual slavery. Ziman’s debut novel has made The New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists, among others, and she has appeared everywhere from CNN to LA Weekly to promote the book and her cause.
On a recent afternoon, she fielded calls in a den filled with photographs of her two adopted daughters, Michele and Ashley, as well as photos of herself with the rich and powerful — including Ziman presenting a copy of her book to former President Bill Clinton. On the walls behind her, almost incongruously, are two artistic renderings of Marilyn Monroe: “Marilyn was a foster child,” she explained. “It’s a reminder as to how vulnerable she was, and how vulnerable foster children are, and how they need love and support. At the end of her life, Marilyn had nowhere to go — even with all of her fame and fortune — and that’s what it’s all about for me.”
Ziman’s passion for the disenfranchised goes back to her childhood in Israel, where she learned that her late grandfather, who had been the mayor of a village near Vilnius, Lithuania, had been murdered during the Holocaust. “Actually, they chopped off his hands and legs and hung him in the gateway to his little town,” she said. “So my heritage is about the lack of consciousness that can develop when people lose sight of their humanity.”
Her awakening to the foster care crisis came, almost two decades ago, as she walked through a shelter in Santa Monica, to which she had written checks but had never visited. “There were these tiny cubicles, and in each cot there was either a mother with children or just children,” she recalled. “Then they took us into the kitchen, and amid the stench of cooking oil there was a little girl, with her hair in dreadlocks, sleeping on a bench. I looked at her and she opened up these piercing green eyes and stared at me. And she jumped off the bench and grabbed my hand.”
The girl was Michele, then 5, the daughter of a crack-addicted mother, whom Ziman initially hoped to help by sending to a rehabilitation clinic. “Michele had bruises all over her body, and at first I believed the mother when she said the child was clumsy,” the philanthropist recalled.
Then one night a call came from a hospital emergency room: Michele’s mother had nearly choked the girl to death. Ziman was able to take Michele home with her, but at the subsequent court hearing, a judge ordered the girl returned to her mother. “I said, ‘No way,’ ” recalled Ziman, who contacted every politician she knew who might help, from Hilary Clinton to Zev Yaroslavky. After much legal wrangling, Ziman was able to become Michele’s foster parent and, eventually, her adoptive mother.
Along the way, she became a major force on Capitol Hill, successfully lobbying to amend the Family Preservation and Reconciliation Act to ensure safety for foster children returning to potentially abusive birth parents. Ziman also founded Children Uniting Nations, a nonprofit that pairs thousands of foster children each year with caring mentors.
During a recent interview, Ziman peppered a conversation with stories about children she has known, both heartbreaking and inspirational: When she once asked a roomful of foster kids how many of them had ever had a birthday party, for example, not one of them raised their hand.
In Los Angeles, she added, 65 percent of foster children emancipate at 18 with no place to live, making them vulnerable to recruiting pimps and drug dealers; 40 percent of people in homeless shelters in California are former foster children.
Ziman incorporated these statistics into “The Gray Zone,” which she began writing as her 20-year marriage to billionaire real estate mogul Richard Ziman was unraveling several years ago. The Israeli émigré — a former model, record company founder, filmmaker and MTV consultant — was a widow when she met Richard Ziman in the 1980s; her first husband had died of leukemia when she was 23. “I really thought Richard and I would be together forever,” she said.
After they separated, she said, the pain was exacerbated when a number of Jewish organizations she had long supported virtually dropped her: “They would send invitations to Richard but not to me,” she recalled. “There is a tendency in the Jewish community to believe that the men matter and the women don’t.”
Feeling abandoned by the community, and in the midst of “a horrific divorce,” she said, she immersed herself in writing “The Gray Zone,” in part, “as an escape, and in order to live vicariously through my character. It was like therapy.”
The fictional Kelly faces challenges not only from without but also from within: “Severe childhood trauma impacts the vortex of the brain, which controls cognition and how we make judgments,” said Ziman, who has supported neurobiological research in the area. “Foster children are taken from their families and moved from foster home to foster home, through no fault of their own. Those who are more resilient are able to take risks more easily as adults, because they have adjusted to working with the unknown. The flip side is that they can develop an inability to create permanent bonds.”
Now that “The Gray Zone” is a best seller, Ziman notes, the Jewish community and other groups have come calling. “If you’re successful, then suddenly, you’re great,” she said, with an ironic laugh. “Everyone says, ‘I knew you could do it; I’ve always loved you.’ ”
According to Ziman, several movie studios are in a bidding war to buy the book rights, and actress Radha Mitchell has expressed interest in the central role.
Meanwhile, Ziman is planning to write her next book, a comedy-drama titled “How to Divorce a Billionaire.” “It’s a fictional novel based on a whole bunch of women that I am friends with who have divorced billionaires, and their stories are so similar it’s bizarre,” she said.
“The minute you divorce a billionaire, you become an industry. Within a day, every family lawyer you’re ever heard of in your entire life becomes your best friend. You now have forensic attorneys and accountants, therapists for your children, therapists for you, and the longer the divorce goes on, the longer everyone gets paid.”
Ziman said she hopes women will take inspiration from her own new career as an author: “There is life after divorce,” she said.
For more information about the novel, whose proceeds will help at-risk children, visit www.daphnaziman.com.