Attorney, author, and activist Carissa Phelps spoke to UCR students and faculty about her experiences with child trafficking and exploitation. The inspirational speaker revealed how she has changed her life and the lives of others since.

On Tuesday, May 1, Carissa Phelps, successful attorney and UCLA graduate, came to UCR and shared her life story in hopes to inspire others to persevere through insurmountable odds.

Phelps had a very rough childhood. She was raised in a family with ten brothers and sisters living under one roof. Her stepfather abused her brothers and sexually assaulted her older sister. At 12 years old, it became clear to Phelps that unless she left the environment, her stepfather’s abuse would soon be directed toward her as well. She turned to the streets and was eventually forced into prostitution. Years later when she found herself in juvenile hall, Phelps decided she needed to turn her life around.

“I’m here on a mission to give a voice to the children on the streets who don’t have one,” started Carissa Phelps. “I saved myself. I told myself I have to get off the streets and I did.”

Her struggle was not easy, and Phelps had help from those around her. She thanks two individuals for helping her on her journey, her teacher Mrs. W and her counselor in juvenile hall. Phelps noted that they were supportive of her in a time when she craved encouragement.

Phelps said that the age she entered the streets is what made her particularly vulnerable. Those who exploited her were experts at manipulating 12-year-old girls. Because of this harsh reality, Phelps noted that is the average age most girls enter prostitution.

“Most people have a fight or flight response. I was a freezer,” said Phelps. “There needs to be attention brought to this issue.” Phelps spoke emphasized the need for people to pull individuals such as her self out of these situations. She stated that those teens who felt frozen are in desperate need of help, care and attention.

Phelps pointed out that child ‘prostitutes’ are manipulated into a situation and they have very little choice in the matter. Phelps shared the story of a 15-year-old she encountered who was arrested for prostitution and was almost beaten to death by a man, who was her trafficker. Despite the abuse, the young girl still called the man her boyfriend, because she felt that he was the only one that cared for her and gave her the sense of family.

Since then, Phelps has done much to turn her life around. She has recently created an enterprise called California Flexible Purpose Corporation an initiative that allows for the organization of corporations with the goal of both economic profit and social welfare objectives. It starts with a training program for runaways that includes other survivors and speakers such as herself, and together they go into communities and speak to people in difficult situations and help them decide how to approach their obstacles. Phelps stated that people are needed to provide those with the support they need to help themselves, because oftentimes sympathy doesn’t work. She said that they need to hear the positives as well as praise, for they are vulnerable and cannot afford to lose their thin armor.

Phelps’ message touched and inspired the audience members, and pushed for community involvement. Phelps remarked, “It’s really critical to get everyone involved in the community. They need to understand that even though the children are overly sexualized and doing things that cause people to label them these awful words, that this is not what they are.”