One woman’s escape from the clutch of abuse

How Shell Beach’s Carissa Phelps survived the tragedies of teen prostitution to become a lawyer, author and champion in the fight against human trafficking

bcuddy@thetribunenews.com.September 1, 2012 

  • How to help

    To find out how to help with the fight against child trafficking, go to carissaphelps.com.

“Kaa was not a poison snake — his strength lay in his hug, and when he had once lapped his huge coils round anybody, there was no more to be said.” — Rudyard Kipling

To Carissa Phelps, the men and women who lured her into a life that led to teenage prostitution were like Kipling’s “Jungle Book” python — seductive, smooth, sinister, deadly.

Phelps, now 35, an attorney living in Shell Beach, was sucked into that nightmarish life by people who told her, “I’m going to take care of you.”

She was only 12 years old. But the message her oppressors held out contained something the rest of her life hadn’t — hope, however false, and a promise of, if not love, at least caring.

The girl soon enough learned that she was in the malignant, “loving” embrace of human malevolence.

It took her years to escape the tightening spiral, a journey she kept hidden for many years. Now, she is telling her story, in part for herself but also because she knows other children are being ensnared.

She knows some of them cannot escape without help, and she wants to help them.

Part of that is proselytizing for Proposition 35 — the Stop Human Trafficking Act — on the November ballot. The act would fight human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and children in California.

A few weeks back, Phelps and I sat at a Shell Beach coffee shop, sharing coffee and her life story — a story she describes in detail in the book “Runaway Girl,” which went on sale earlier this summer.

Talking about it comes more easily these days. Even as she was forging a new life for herself in her 20s, she kept quiet, telling “one friend at a time.”

She likens the hesitancy to a volcano building up, and finally going off.

“When a volcano erupts, it changes the landscape,” Phelps says.

One of those changes is new growth.

“I’m starting to see a flower bloom. People are starting to get it.” Meanwhile, people are coming to see her as a role model and mentor.

As she sees herself helping others, it helps her as well, “tremendously — I’m like the mom of that. It’s exciting to be a part of that.”

“Kids realize they have an opportunity. Women contact me from all walks of life. There are a lot of women who have experienced it and haven’t been able to talk about it.”

Becoming a runaway

Her story, told in detail in “Runaway Girl,” is both disturbing and inspiring.

She spent her early years in Coalinga, Fresno and other Central Valley towns in a blended family of 11 children that was festering with poverty, chaos and abuse. “For as long as I could remember, I tried to escape.”

She did run away, moving in with a friend. But her mother told her friend’s parents they could be charged with harboring a fugitive, so that didn’t last.

She got into all manner of trouble, and her mother finally dropped her outside juvenile hall. That led to a group home. The foster mom was mean, Phelps said, so she ran away again.

The twists and turns are difficult to listen to, let alone live through. Phelps was eventually befriended by a prostitute in Fresno who hooked her up with her boyfriend, a pimp.

It’s important to remember that, when all this began, she was a child of 12. “I was still doing cartwheels on the front lawn.”

Phelps was vulnerable, easy prey for people decades older than she was who told her, “I’ll take care of you,” and groomed her for prostitution as their “property.”

She dealt with it by treating it as “an out-of-body experience. This was not something I was participating in.” Instead, she says she told herself, “It was something I have to do to survive.”

In one particularly harrowing and heartbreaking excerpt of a hotel room encounter from “Runaway Girl,” she wrote, “I’d never had sex this way. I don’t remember if it hurt. I don’t remember if I felt a thing. ... I was not in the room. I was some place else. Some place safe.

“What was happening was not happening to me — not to the spirit of me, the heart of me, the girl who knew how to do math problems, who knew how to bathe babies and ride a bike for miles. That girl wasn’t there.”

Getting to escape

How did she escape?

Phelps’ long ascent through and out of the swamp is unnervingly detailed in her book, and it involves immeasurable help from caring individuals. The subtitle is “Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time.”

A turning point occurred when she was sent to a rehabilitation center in Fresno that was one step short of going to the California Youth Authority — a destination she felt could destroy her.

At Fresno’s C.W. Wakefield School, Phelps encountered teachers and counselors who cared about her, told her she had self-worth, encouraged her, spent time with her.

That caring fed into a growing maturity on her part, a decision she made to turn her life around. She somehow found an inner strength.

The two forces, internal and external, nourished each other.

Phelps’ journey continued, leading back to high school, then to Cuesta College, Fresno State and UCLA, where she earned both a law degree and master’s in business administration.

It was not a straight, steady journey — she stumbled more than once. But, helped by many, many people, she arrived at the point when she could say, as she does in “Runaway Girl,” “That girl in the mirror — she survived.” Now she wants to pay it back — to give to other children the care that her mentors gave to her.

She is a motivational speaker and advocate, and works toward that end every day of her life. Proposition 35 is a tool helping achieve that goal.

Phelps wants the changes in the law that Proposition 35 would bring, but she wants a few larger things, as well. First, she would like to change the perception that people who actually are victims are criminals.

“The state is promoting slavery by arresting enslaved people,” she says.

And she wants to draw attention to the problem, overlooked by decision-makers.

Human trafficking is perhaps best-known — among those who acknowledge it at all — for targeting immigrants from Asia and Latin America. That perception is accurate, but they are by no means the sole victims.

“One in seven kids runs away,” Phelps says, and one-third of those will be propositioned.

“None,” Kipling wrote about “the night thief” — his python Kaa — “had ever come alive out of his hug.”

Kipling never met Carissa Phelps.

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