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Carissa Phelps on running away from hopelessness

Carissa now dedicates her life to helping victims and survivors of the sex trade.
Carissa now dedicates her life to helping victims and survivors of the sex trade.

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All odds were against her. At the age of 12, after years of chaotic home life, she was abandoned by her mother to Fresno’s Juvenile Hall. A series of group homes and state facilities followed, along with time on the streets; finally, she became a victim of the child sex trafficking trade, forced into prostitution by a brutal pimp.

Carissa Phelps would have ended up another statistic, but for the intervention of a compassionate few: the math teacher who nurtured her love of numbers, the counselor who encouraged her to value herself — and her own inner strength and determination.

After graduating from UCLA with both a law degree and an MBA, Phelps turned her horrific experience into a beacon of hope for others, dedicating herself to helping victims and survivors of the sex trade escape their situation and rebuild their lives. Phelps’ story may be unique — but it shouldn’t be.

On her hometown:
"I grew up all over California, but in Coalinga, particularly. It was a small town, and we were far from our county eat which was Fresno, about 70 miles. Social services that people maybe would assume were there, were not. Everything got around like in a small town it would."

On abuse she suffered at the hands of her step-father:
"I was really anxious about everything at school. I wanted to turn in my emergency card, and basically it was lost among the chaos, I have 10 brothers and sisters at home, a small home. When I couldn't get it signed, I didn't want to run out to the bus, and my step father basically picked me up and threw me out and I landed pretty much on my face, but caught myself and got scraped up and everyone on the school bus was looking, including the bus driver, who stopped and waited for me to come on the bus."

On the backlash from that incident:
"I was considered a liar and basically told I shouldn't talk, I shouldn't make reports like that and that I was making too big a deal out of it. I wasn't even the one to report it. I just came to school bleeding in the 2nd grade and crying. So it was a teacher who reported it."

How having an abusive parent affected her development:
"You don't have an opportunity to develop trust and I think that's the biggest thing that holds you back throughout your development. When somebody just blows up. and you don't know when they're going to blow up or what they're going to blow up about. You think the world is unpredictable and you're frightened to go forward and to get close to people and that's how I found myself and my siblings. My first reaction oftentimes would be with anger and I would act out in that way when I was a child. The way I saw things around me."

On how she got lured into the sex trade:
"There were various things I would do, but people would take me in to be a nanny. That was as young as 12, I would be watching other people's kids and taking care of them during the day when they wanted to do something else. Or if it was at night if they wanted to party and they wanted to leave their kids with a babysitter I would become the babysitter. Then things started just getting to where people didn't want me to stay with them unless I would do sexual acts. Men were very aggressive and wanted to basically exploit me and eventually sell me to other people."

On how being a victim of sex trafficking affected her:
"I was totally out of my body. I couldn't stay in it. I couldn't stand it. The things that were happening to me I felt like maybe were happening to someone else. Not me. I couldn't function in normal day-to-day life at school or in society because I thought that person who was going to harm me was around the corner. And on the streets they are. They're waiting for you. They're ready to exploit you at every moment when you're a 12-year-old girl"

On the turning point and the person who saved her life:
"I was so fortunate when I was locked up in juvenile hall to meet a man, he was a young man in his early 20s who had been a football star. An amazingly positive person. He was an African-American man. He came into my life and I had a choice to make. It was a conscious choice about whether I was going to trust him and let him into my life and share things with him. He gave me no reasons not to trust him, he was very positive, all the other kids had great things to say about him. That gave me a positive male role model, that allowed me to have healthy relationship now.

On how the man she met in juvenile hall taught her how to trust again:
"I'm always a little bit hesitant and I stayed hesitant in that relationship. I wanted him to see the best sides of me like any kid would. It felt like he was more of a father figure and so I just wanted him to see the best sides of me and always be proud of me. For that reason I maybe didn't share every single thing with him, but I shared almost everything with him."

On how lucky she is to have met the man in juvenile hall:
"It was just totally by the grace of God, there's no reason I should have been there, he should have been there. I was assigned to a boy's program, one of four girls that would ever be assigned to that program. He was there in a leadership role because someone was out sick, so it just all came together at the right moment and it was an opportunity for me."

Weigh In:

What does it take to go from runaway girl to success story? How can communities fight back against child sex trafficking?


Carissa Phelps, author of “Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time” (Viking); attorney and youth advocate

Read an excerpt from "Runaway Girl":