Friday, February 23 , 2018, 3:25 pm | Fair 61º


Local News

‘Runaway Girl’ Carissa Phelps Helps Community Confront Realities of Human Trafficking

The survivor turned lawyer-advocate appears at an event in Lompoc to speak about what service providers can do to help children

Carissa Phelps, right, speaks on Tuesday night in Lompoc about being a survivor of child human trafficking and what the community can do to prevent those types of crimes.
Carissa Phelps, right, speaks on Tuesday night in Lompoc about being a survivor of child human trafficking and what the community can do to prevent those types of crimes. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

About 200 people packed into a room at the Dick DeWees Community Center in Lompoc on Tuesday night to hear about an insidious problem plaguing Santa Barbara County — that of human trafficking.

The crowd had gathered to hear from Carissa Phelps, a human trafficking survivor who has now founded her own organization that helps connect survivors of human trafficking with employment and career opportunities. That group, called Runaway Girl, also coordinates trainings and seminars on how communities can help victims of human trafficking, many of whom are children who are sexually abused and victimized.

Phelps appeared at the event, which was sponsored by the Lompoc-Vandenberg Branch of the American Association of University Women, and has written a powerful memoir about her own life story called Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets.

Her gut-wrenching story details an abusive home life in Coalinga, Calif., and how Phelps, as a 12-year-old runaway, found herself caught in a vicious cycle of sexual exploitation and abuse as she was trafficked as child by a brutal pimp. The book is a harrowing tale of how children can become victims in their own communities, and documents the cycle of juvenile hall, group homes and life on the streets that constitutes the reality for many runaways.

Phelps was eventually able to attend college, graduating with a law degree from UCLA as well as an MBA, and had dedicated her life to advocating for survivors.

Phelps spoke Tuesday and her talk was less about her powerful personal story outlined in her book and more on what community service providers can do to help children.

Many law enforcement officials, including officers from the Lompoc Police Department, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office, service providers, those in the medical field and others were in the audience.

Phelps said there's been a stigma in the past, and that she's introduced as a "former child prostitute," which not only furthered a stigma but was inaccurate.

Phelps spoke about the trade of prostitution, and that even if a victim of trafficking is 18 years old, "18 doesn't matter," she said. "When somebody offers money for your flesh, at that moment, that is a violent act."

The traffickers or purchasers can look like anyone, she said, and reminded the audience that a pimp working on the low end of trafficking could bring in half a million dollars a year with a handful of victims working each night, but that some traffickers bring in millions annually.

Victims are not going to come running for help, Phelps said, adding that it's not just one thing that makes children vulnerable to traffickers, but a host of unmet needs, abuse, neglect, abandonment, rejection and other life circumstances.

A trafficker may provide false hopes, false family structure and even provide food and shelter or have children with the victim.

Lower social tolerance and discouraging the buying sex is key to ending human trafficking, Phelps said, and that messages like this should even be included in sex ed curriculum in schools.

"Make it not OK," she said, adding that conversations should be had with children about the messages in music and media, especially for young girls.

Decreasing the demand for sex with a victim could include suspending the buyer's driver license or a geographic restraining order against people who are known to be perpetrators.

Phelps also spoke about what victims say they need in order to leave trafficking, and highest on the list are job training, housing and emotional support.

Connecting victims with survivors is also key, so that they know there is hope on the other side.

Phelps reminded the audience that every time someone buys sex, "you're hurting society," adding that the cost of that person's care will take a high toll on that person's well-being and safety as well as tax social services, law enforcement and the surrounding community.

"Buying somebody, not OK," she said. "My guess is, with the number of people in the room, we can get that message out."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >