By the age of 12, Carissa Phelps knew what it meant to walk the streets of the Central Valley. A childhood of neglect and abuse led her to run away from home, drop out of school and, unknowingly, seek refuge in the home of a pimp.
Phelps was eventually able to escape, but that isn’t the case for every sexually exploited child. Sex trafficking of minors, she said, is and has been very much present in the Central Valley.
Phelps, now 37, is an attorney and founder of Runaway Girl, which organizes and prepares survivors of human trafficking to help other victims within their communities.
Phelps and a group of survivors and advocates visited Merced on Thursday to train human services professionals on ways to create procedures for responding to commercially and sexually exploited children.
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The training conference was organized by the Human Services Agency in an effort to bring greater awareness to the potential indicators of trafficking and exploitation. According to Merced County HSA Director Ana Pagan, the agency has received the support of law enforcement, elected officials, educators and health professionals in developing the initiative.
Pagan said bringing this type of training to Merced is important because most people do not realize that child sex trafficking is happening in their neighborhoods. “Many people think this only happens in foreign, Third World countries,” she said, “but no, this happens here.”
“We’ve seen cases in Merced,” she continued, “and we’re talking about children as young as 8 years old.”
According to studies, as many as 325,000 children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are at risk each year of becoming victims of sexual exploitation. It is estimated that 30 percent of shelter youth and 70 percent of street youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation. These children may be coerced into prostitution in exchange for food, shelter or drugs.
During her presentation, Phelps explained that traffickers or pimps typically target vulnerable victims, particularly runaways or children who have experienced trouble at home. They do this through a variety of venues, such as social media sites, shopping malls, city streets and even schools.
But exploitation can also occur within families. Phelps said traffickers are known to use psychological manipulation and physical control to make the victims feel trapped and powerless.
In the Central Valley, Phelps said residential brothels aren’t uncommon. Phelps said pimps target migrant workers as customers because these workers may not be aware of the penalties associated with child trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
Having experienced exploitation herself, Phelps said, she can empathize with the victims and survivors. She said she believes all it takes is one person to listen and understand to make an impact in a victim’s life.
“I was a runaway, I was trafficked, I was sold in the streets,” Phelps said, “Eventually I was involved in crime; I was ready for death or prison.”
“But then I met a counselor who really made the difference for me,” she continued. “All it took was one person to tell me they saw potential in me.”
Phelps said her goal is to empower the community with the tools needed to know how to respond to the crime of child sex trafficking and understand the mind-set of a victim.
“Just seeing that (Merced County) is interested and willing to take the initiative, it’s huge,” Phelps said. “That’s what makes a difference.”