When Carissa Phelps was 14 years old she found herself in a last-chance rehab facility for young people, on the verge of becoming another casualty of the streets. What had started out as frequent sleepovers at friends' houses to escape the wrath of her stepfather and her chaotic, impoverished home, grew into full-fledged running away, until her exasperated mother finally abandoned her at Fresno's Juvenile Hall. She was 12 years old.
From this point, Carissa pinballed between the streets and various group homes or state run facilities. She experienced trauma that no child should have to endure at the hands of a brutal pimp, who made her walk the streets. But by some miracle she survived, and the child victim grew up to be a strong, successful woman, driven by her desire to pay it forward by helping kids in need.
RUNAWAY GIRL: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time (Viking, $26.95), by Carissa Phelps, co-authored with Larkin Warren, is her story. Here, she explains why she decided to tell her story, and how people misrepresent what she went through.
I was in graduate school at UCLA Anderson when I first told my story publicly. It was October 2005 and the semester before I had been through a major breakup. For what he knew, my fiancé had been accepting of my past. He thought, like I did, that I'd do something with my story in the future --- it was almost the way you think about giving money, "I'll make that contribution, when I could afford it."
When we broke up, it gave me a reason to rethink everything, and suddenly I did not want to live beneath shame or embarrassment about my experiences. Externally I was driven by wanting people to know who I was. The life I lived would not be something I wanted sympathy for, but that I wanted to understand. I needed to know where I fit in.
What would my truth say about my social status, political affiliation, and moral code?
In my journey toward sharing my experience on the streets I needed to accept that others would get it wrong. They would see their version of the truth, and my only hope was to get them to understand that their version was often wrong. The biggest misconception was that I was a prostitute. I was a child, twelve years old when a man twice my age suggested that I become "his girl." It wasn't as if I was flipping through the want ads and said, "look at this, I could become a prostitute."
When we call sexual exploitation of youth something like "prostitution" we put all the blame where it does not belong. We focus on the youth, on the child, on their behavior. In the recent Sandusky hearing, the questions were not about the child's "promiscuous" or "needy" behavior that led to their being easy targets for abuse. Today, the focus is not on what a child victim is wearing or that they may have admired or sought out the person that was abusing them. Thankfully for the Sandusky victims and for many other child sexual abuse victims we've gotten past that type of victim blaming when it comes to straight child sexual abuse. However, for the children and youth that are commercially sexually exploited we are still far off.
What I experienced was not prostitution. I was twelve. I was abused. There was nothing about it that made me feel like I was in control. It was the opposite. I belonged to someone. He controlled me. He played games with me to get me to obey him and to make sure that I knew he was the boss. Up until that point I had rebelled against all adults, so it was odd for me to follow his rules, but he made sure I knew that he was in control.
Even when he played nice he was using mind control. When he raped me more gently, or didn't do things to me that he'd promised he'd do, he was seeking control. He wanted me to keep going back to him, to feel attached to his "sympathetic" side. It was all part of his trapping me. It took a day for him to have confidence that I would not run from him, and probably sooner than that for him to realize that I would not report him or any of the abuses that were done to me.
I may not have been snatched from my bedroom in the middle of the night, but I was held captive. Many times there were no walls, no doors, no locks holding me back from running, but a child at someone else's mercy, whether that someone is a man, a woman, a relative or a stranger, is in a prison. Each time I stayed, each time I returned, my capture would feed me with some form of attention, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always something. Going back to a world where I was ignored, where I was just a number, a body filling a void, didn't even occur to me as an option.
When the police found me I was with two adult male pimp-traffickers, and two other known trafficking victims. Back then, in 1989, it was not called trafficking, and what the police saw was two thugs and two whores with a little girl wannabe in the backseat. They picked me up and took me to juvenile hall, I did exactly what I was told to do by my trafficker. I lied about my age.
This was the easiest part, something I'd already been used to doing. I had been on the run, a delinquent youth for the past year, and that time had taught me more about people, more about place, more about the world, than I imagined most grown ups had figured out by twenty or thirty. The experiences I had didn't change my age, but they changed my attitude. I hardened, and it would take another year of spiraling downward before someone, anyone, would recognize that I might just have some potential.
See below for the trailer for Runaway Girl