Mere hours after Carissa Phelps ran away from an abusive home, she got picked up by a pimp and began walking the streets of Central California to solicit sex.
She was only 12 years old.
When criminal activity landed Phelps in juvenile hall years later, she heard from a counselor that she had potential. “I didn’t know what the word meant,” said Phelps. “I knew it was a good thing so I looked it up.”
Since early childhood, Phelps had lived with condemnation. She’d grown to believe she deserved it. By reaching out with words meant to build up rather than tear down, the counselor inspired Phelps to realize the potential she never knew she had.
Today Phelps is an attorney, social entrepreneur and youth advocate, who recently piloted a one-day course, known as Community Protocols for Response (CPR) Training, to a capacity crowd at Children's Hospital Central California. Suited for professionals and community members serving at-risk youth, CPR Training is designed to help first responders identify and rescue children trapped by their exploiters and often discarded by their own families.
Phelps collaborated with Cristal McGill, Ph.D., founder, Engaging Minds Now, and J. Allen, internationally recognized speaker, to present the curriculum offered through her newly established company, Runaway Girl, FPC. She took advantage of a recently enacted California corporate law that created the flexible purpose corporation (FPC), a unique type of business entity, to form Runaway Girl, FPC. A hybrid integrating the for-profit philosophy of the traditional corporation with the charitable mission of a nonprofit, an FPC pursues social welfare – in addition to the bottom line – as a main objective.
For over 10 years, McGill has utilized her educational psychology expertise to develop training programs for at-risk youth. She is currently sharing her knowlege of learning styles and instructional strategies with Phelps and other survivors to help make their presentations engaging and interactive.
Allen’s career as a technology entrepreneur led him to start nine high-tech companies, and now he is donating his time to assist Phelps with launching hers. Allen introduced the concepts behind the CPR Training course at The Day for Children Conference sponsored by the Madera County Child Abuse Prevention Council last April.
“I was at the presentation and heard J. speak,” said Leanne Kozub, child advocacy coordinator for the Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center at Children's Hospital Central California. “And I thought, ‘We can do this right now at Children’s.’ And when I found out Carissa was local, I thought she might be interested in piloting her training program here.”
Children’s Hospital invited social workers, probation officers, law enforcement officers, pastoral care providers and representatives of various community organizations and agencies to attend the free event, which included a continental breakfast, buffet lunch and afternoon snack. Participants learned to evaluate, develop and implement effective strategies and procedures for community-based plans to identify, reach and engage survivors of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC).
Main Objectives of CPR Training
Phelps, Allen and their team of presenters stressed three main objectives they hope to accomplish with CPR Training:
- Eliminate the criminalization of CSEC victims.
- Abolish use of the phrase “child prostitute.”
- Equip first responders to meet the felt needs of survivors.
Who is the criminal?
According to Allen, the primary issue for most survivors is the criminalization of their victimization. “Why do we do that?” asked Allen about law enforcement typically going after a misdemeanor solicitation charge against the child rather than a felony charge of statutory rape against the perpetrator.
“Street gangs are moving from drugs to sex trafficking,” said Phelps. “It is very lucrative and the penalties are less for enslaving people than they are for drug trafficking.”
A system that penalizes the victim while slapping the wrist of a brutal pimp needs to be changed, and Runaway Girl, FPC lobbies for that change. California has recently enacted laws that increase penalties for perpetrators, and AB2040 allows prior arrests associated with CSEC to be permanently erased from the survivor’s record.
“Why would a child who has been in trouble with the law contact the police for help?” asks Allen. He spoke of a CSEC survivor who had been brutally raped and beaten and left in a field by the “trick” who picked her up. When she finally made her way to a phone, she called her pimp rather than the police. The sexual assault was never reported and the perpetrator was never brought to justice.
An “Amber Alert” summons all resources into immediate action when a child is missing from a supportive environment. Electronic billboards up and down California’s freeways often post the abductor’s type of car and license plate number.
The difference between the community’s response to an “Amber Alert” and to a runaway demonstrates a sad reality: only one of them is considered a victim of crime. Exploited runaways have been victimized as well, but are often treated as criminals, unworthy of concern and cited by the police. Phelps calls it “state-sponsored slavery.” Once law enforcement takes an adversarial role, the runaway will not seek them for help.
“We need to teach community members to move in when a child is missing from SHoP, just like with an Amber Alert,” said Phelps, explaining the term “SHoP” stands for school, home or placement. “We’re here at Children's Hospital – a place that cares for children,” she said. “A place I should’ve been taken instead of juvenile hall.”
What’s in a label?
Another issue for survivors is the language used when talking about them. “I realize ‘commercially sexually exploited children’ doesn’t roll off the tongue like ‘child prostitute’ does,” said Allen. “But there’s power in words and no two words belong together less than ‘child’ and ‘prostitute.’”
The term “sexually exploited child” defines what has happened to a child rather than labels who the child is. “These children are not entering into a profession,” said Allen. “They are victims.” A prostitute conducts a business transaction, providing sexual services for money. Children do not have the level of maturity necessary to make a choice to enter into a profession. “You would never say, ‘I’m going to a child surgeon,’” said Allen. “We don’t have child airline pilots or child doctors, and we don’t have child prostitutes.”
Pimps take advantage of the demeaning labels runaways often hear while growing up and their consequences to dominate these vulnerable children. Effects of labels exploited by pimps include:
- rejection from family
- feelings of worthlessness
- lack of self esteem
- brainwashed into hopelessness
“When a child hears someone say, ‘I’ll take care of you if you’ll take care of me’ they don’t know what that means,” said Phelps. “They think it just means they’re supposed to be nice. And when a child’s boundary has been violated, it blurs what’s wrong and inappropriate.”
Other tactics used in sex trafficking to lure and enslave young boys and girls include:
- child’s lack of resources
- addictions (sometimes forced)
- behavior of pimps that alternates between violence and kindness
- trauma bonds
- home is worse
How can you help?
Survivors’ third main issue is having their tangible needs met. “If you do outreach but can’t provide exploited children with the basic necessities like housing and food, they’re going to walk away saying, ‘I knew they couldn’t help me,’” said Juanetta Stephens, certified substance abuse counselor and CSEC survivor after 15 years’ walking the streets. “Do your homework. They have needs you might not think of – dental, optometry – offering these resources can make a difference.”
Emotional needs can be very deep. Even after escaping their pimps, CSEC survivors often remain in bondage to the pain of past abuse, neglect and abandonment. Stephens warned first responders not to get so engrossed in the details of the survivor’s story that they forget they’re not there to be captivated. “Instead listen for their cries for help,” she said.
“Outreach needs to happen between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.,” said Phelps, joking that most “good church ladies” are asleep at that time. “You need to be out there when they are out there – and not just one night every year,” she said.
Presenters at CPR Training cautioned first responders to carefully consider what they give to the girls and boys walking the streets. “Pimps take everything away from them,” said Allen. “The only things they won’t take away are a pair of underwear, a brush, lip balm and maybe a mirror.”
Phelps suggested printing the rescue hotline phone number on a tube of lip balm or a book of matches. “A survivor with an outreach program called Courtney’s House, came up with the lip balm idea,” said Phelps. “The pimps think the Courtney’s House logo and phone number are just the name of the company who made the lip balm and let them keep it.” Phelps mentioned another program effectively printed their info on matchbooks and handed them out. “She’s got the matches for her cigarettes,” said Phelps. “And when she’s ready to call the rescue hotline, she has the number.”
“If we open the way they will get out,” said Stephens. “I tell them, ‘No matter how normal it seems, your life is not normal.’ They need someone to tell them that.”
Allen quoted Harriett Tubman, who said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Though referring to the American slave trade prior to the Civil War, the African-American abolitionist and Union spy spoke truth about today’s victims of sex trafficking. Phelps credits survivor and performing artist Stacy Lewis with applying Tubman’s quote to modern forms of slavery.
Two-fold purpose of Runaway Girl, FPC
Phelps launched Runaway Girl, FPC to help survivors of sex trafficking in two distinct ways:
- to train community members to identify, reach and engage survivors, and
- to empower survivors by providing them with a career opportunity.
CPR Training not only helps first responders, but also offers survivors a platform to share their knowledge of the sex trafficking industry and their insights on effective ways to connect with sexually exploited children. “We may have been sold,” said Phelps. “But we won’t let it be for nothing.”
CSEC survivors are given opportunities to learn from and contribute to content presented during CPR Training courses. Runaway Girl, FPC not only covers their expenses to attend, but also pays a stipend for the unique and powerful messages they bring to the movement against modern-day slavery.
Survivors are frequently called upon to lend their expertise to panel discussions and intervention programs. “They’re passionate about helping and they do it for no pay,” said Phelps. “They return home to an apartment they can barely afford and an empty refrigerator. They’re being exploited all over again. That’s why Runaway Girl is a flexible purpose corporation. We are for-profit with a charitable purpose.”
While in juvenile hall, Phelps’ counselor and math teacher helped her realize her potential by encouraging her to set goals. She has assumed that same mentoring role with Runaway Girl, FPC.
“I want to create a platform where survivors can transfer their knowledge and skills to other survivors, teaching them marketable skills,” said Phelps. “It’s the Mary Kay model, only we’re focused on inner beauty.”
Phelps was inspired by Neet’s Sweets, a business started by Antonia “Neet” Childs, a CSEC survivor who loved to bake. “She made less money, but she was good at it and she loved it,” said Phelps. “We need to help survivors like Neet find what they’re good at so they can excel at something. Tapping into passion and purpose is one way to build self worth.”
Rescuing and empowering survivors
Attendees of the training session piloted at Children's Hospital Central California by Runaway Girl, FPC were given an insider’s look into heinous criminal activity going on within a few miles from where they sat in the safety of that conference room.
“When you think of the worst kind of child abuse, you probably think of childhood sexual abuse,” said Allen. “Child sexual abuse is bad, but it gets worse. The sexual exploitation of children is abuse again and again over time, even years. But it gets worse,” he said. “Commercial sexual exploitation of children is abuse over time for profit. And it gets even worse than that. Within 20 miles of where you’re sitting, children are being trafficked. They are literally being sold into slavery.”
“It’s always been there, but now you’re going to see it,” said Phelps of the sex trade. “Boys are on one side of the street, girls on the other, but it’s the same level of exploitation for both. My goal is for Runaway Girl, FPC to be a clearing house for best practices for identifying and reaching sexually exploited children,” she said.
The efforts of CPR Training have already produced fruit at Children’s Hospital. One element of the course contains an introduction to the terminology used on the streets, known as “the life” or “the game.” Participants learn to identify if a child is in “the life” by recognizing the words he or she uses. Kozub presented this segment of Phelps' course at a continuing education conference for healthcare professionals held last May at Children's.
“Shortly after the training I got a call from a nurse in the emergency department,” said Kozub of the prior conference. “She told me they had a 13-year-old girl in there using all the same terminology and wanted to know what to do.” The Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center at Children's Hospital Central California stepped in to provide intervention.
To learn more about serving our community as a first responder, Kozub recommends contacting Ronna Bright of the local human trafficking collaborative:
Central Valley Against Human Trafficking
Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission
(559) 268-1045, Ext. 103
For more information about Carissa Phelps and her company, Runaway Girl, FPC, visit her website.
The work of reaching out to young victims of the sex trade is hard and often painful, and the results can be difficult to measure. But your efforts could help save a life. “All of the survivors I work with say the same thing,” said Phelps. “It’s a calling.”