19 – Runaway Girl

Ending Human Trafficking Podcast Logo

Survivors provide an important perspective on how we can work to end human trafficking. Sandra Morgan, the Director of the Global Center for Women & Justice and Dave Stachowiak, one of the Center’s board members, interview Carissa Phelps and Marianna Smirnova about their work to end human trafficking and about Carissa’s upcoming book, Runaway Girl.

Key Points

  • How to be a proactive voice in ending human trafficking.
  • Exploited people exploit, they carry on and normalize what has been done to them.
  • Carissa’s book, Runaway Girl, is honest and open to the struggle of trying to figure out the world.
  • Victims are trapped physically by guns and such, but at other times, trapped by fear.
  • Expunging records for survivors of trafficking. The system creates barriers that prevent living a normal life.
  • Foster youth are targeted and exploited because they don’t have anyone to protect them.
  • How to develop an economic community for community engagement.


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Dave: You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast; this is episode number 19 recorded in January 2012. Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast, my name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: And I am Sandie Morgan.

Dave: And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie we are back for our very first episode of 2012 and our continuing conversation on how to support the conversation of ending human trafficking and its great to be back with you for our ongoing efforts to bring more light to this issue.

Sandie: I am really excited to be back, the Global Center for Women and Justice is off to a good start in 2012, one of the new features is we have a direct dial number that you can call and leave your questions and engage with us. That number is (714) 966-6361, and of course is you want to use email you can go to Gcwj@vangaurd.edu.

Dave: With a new year comes lots of new resources and Sandie, before we jump in and welcome our guest today, we do have a couple guests today.

Sandie: And I am very excited about that.

Dave: Me too, I know you wanted to mention something about the conference coming up in just a couple of short months, I know we have been talking about it the last few months, but now its really close to happening.

Sandie: Oh yes, and our conference Ensure Justice 2012 is called Standing Together to End the Exploitation of Girls. That’s why I am so excited to have our guest today. But if you want to register for that, you are going to have to go online to gcwj.vanguard.edu so you get the early bird rates. The conference is March 2nd and 3rd, our guest speakers include Judge William Boyd who is a leading voice in the Juvenile Court system because of his proximity to the issue there in Las Vegas and he brings a voice of experience and passion and a compelling message for community engagement, we also have wonderful professionals in nursing, in children’s residential facilities, probation officers at the district attorney’s office in Las Vegas and locally here, it is going to be a conference you do not want to miss because we are going to work on strategies to end the exploitation of girls. So go online, you can go to ensurejustice.com or to gcwj.vanguard.edu to register.

Dave: And that takes us right to our guest today Sandie, and learning more about one of the big mantra’s of the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University is to study the issues, so we can be a voice and make a difference, and today part of our podcast always is studying the issues of human trafficking, and our guests today are really going to help us do that and help us to learn more from experience and how we can study this issue to really be proactive voices in ending human trafficking.

Sandie: Thank you, Dave. I am very excited to introduce our guest today. Karissa Phelps brings the experience and the expertise into this issue that is difficult to find anywhere else, and her colleague, Marianna Smernova has been her policy consultant on human trafficking. So together the experience and expertise will bring a lot of light to this issue and we are just going to get started right away. Karissa, will you tell us more about the organization you started?
Karissa: Sure, the organization is NAIOC, it’s the National Alliance to Improve Outcomes for CSEC, and most of your listeners if they are up to this podcast know that CSEC is commercial sexual exploitation of children, and the organization is just doing exactly what the name says, its just focused on improving outcomes for this population of CSEC, I do believe that all forms of human trafficking will be addressed in our strategy because we know that exploited people exploit, however we are taking a focus on measuring and taking a look at the things we can do by engaging the population of CSEC survivors to improve outcomes for them.

Sandie: Wow. Okay, just in your statement I want to go back to exploited people become exploiters. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Karissa: Sure, well we are all familiar will the concept I think of the people that are abused may or may not be abusers and sometimes there is a tendency to carry on the acts that have been done to them or to think that its okay to somehow normalize that activity. So my experience in being a trafficking victim and being a trafficking survivor was that I saw many of the people that have abused and exploited me were also abused and exploited themselves in different realms maybe, but they were also exploited whether in labor or some other area, that’s what I view both as a survivor and now working in this field.

Sandie: That’s really important insight that we will all need to explore and understand better. Now you have already identified for our listeners that you are a survivor, but that means then that you were a victim and I am very excited to be one of the first to tell people that your book is coming out really soon, Runaway Girl. When is that going to be available?

Karissa: July 9th, it is soon, when I look at all the time it took to write the book so yes, July 9th, 2012.

Sandie: Now I don’t want to spoiler, but can you tell us a little bit of what this book is about, Runaway Girl.

Karissa: Well, I mean, I really wanted to write a book that was honest and open and true to the struggle that I think we all go through, the human experience of trying to figure out the world and my circumstances happen to be that I was in a mixed family, had a step father, had some step brothers and sisters and we were a very large family of 11. Attention was also and issue in my family but also abuse, and I show a picture of that in the beginning but I’m not pointing fingers or holding grudges or judging in the book and I think that’s a very important process of where I am in my life, that I have been able to forgive and move on. And I tell the story of running away from home because I didn’t feel like I had a place there anymore. Then ultimately being abandoned at the age of 12 and finding my own way to survive and being exploited by people that I think, in society, had already been exploited in various ways. Some of them traffic themselves as children and then end up becoming traffickers, so I lived through that at 12 years old and came out with a very strong belief that the reason I was there was to carry a message of hope forward for all the people that are trapped there and need a way out, and I kind of have used my ability to do well in school on standardized tests, go forward majoring in math at Fresno State and graduated Summa and going on to law school at UCLA to pursue some form of justice for not only what I had gone through but for  what people are continually going through in this cycle. That maybe I could raise some awareness but also do something about the issue. I added the MBA to my program because I really felt that I needed to understand how decisions were being made in communities, in businesses and why people were being exploited in some of the higher levels of society. It all came together and I am here today and the story is just about that, the whole coming of age process, and I think many people will identify even if they haven’t been abused or exploited with some of the processes that I went through.

Sandie: Well you used two words that really captured my attention. You were trapped, and then you talked about the cycle. Now, a lot of people that I have met and I have heard their stories, that concept of being trapped is something that the average listener doesn’t understand because the average listener thinks that you are locked in a room and tied up and handcuffed or something, would you describe what were the factors that trapped you.

Karissa: I mean, as a 12-year-old, those things did happen to me. I was physically at times trapped with people holding weapons against me. But then there were times where I could have walked out the door. The door was not locked. But I was trapped by fear really, paralysis, what we may have learned in our general psychology course or maybe more advanced is that we have this fight or flight mode when we are attacked, but we also have a freeze mode as well. I think children, because they don’t have a great big bag of resources to pull from, or experience they often freeze. They are told what to do and they respond to whatever adult is telling them what to do. So when there are people exploiting or taking advantage of them, they are very vulnerable. Then we trap them sometimes in society by saying things like “why didn’t you run away, why didn’t you get help, why didn’t you do this” and really putting a lot of blame and shame onto them when they in fact did not make a decision to be there in the first place but they froze in a necessity to survive.

Sandie: So that sense of being trapped and being caught in that cycle, it seems that what Marianna what you bring to the table is the legislation that is designed to interrupt that cycle. What are some of the most promising directions that are out there right now to help interrupt that cycle?

MS: Thanks, and I think that policy is just one way to deal with and address human trafficking, and you know policy is a very intricate process. Sometimes you enact a policy then its not fully implemented so it’s really important to see the whole process through. Some of the things we are looking at are sort of statewide and national policy developments, but also sometimes it comes down to organizational policies and changing policies within systems, so for example, if you speak of being trapped in that cycle, a lot of times especially if you see children but also if you see adults as well, is that they are criminalized. The victims and survivors themselves are seen and treated by systems as criminals whether it’s the child juvenile system, or it’s the DCFS, or it’s the immigration enforcement for adults, the criminal system for adults, a lot of times it sees victims as perpetrators and that’s what we are trying to change within the system, so working with DCFS and working with probation and changing their mindsets. But more broadly, for example on state level, right now there is actually a really interesting trend that has happened in several different states which is expunging or vacating convictions for survivors of trafficking. So, as I have mentioned again a lot of times the system doesn’t respond properly, and instead of criminalizing and holding perpetrators accountable, it criminalizes the victim. What were trying to do is actually, when that has happened, and then survivors go on carrying these convictions on their record or they have a juvenile record, its really hard, basically it creates almost impossible barriers to reintegrate into society and lead a normal life because there are barriers in getting an education, there are barriers in getting housing, there are barriers in getting jobs, so what a lot of states have done already, states like Illinois and New York and Maryland and Nevada, have passed vacating conviction laws that would help vacate the criminal record for survivors of trafficking if they were convicted of any criminal activity, so we are a direct result of their victimization and now in California and actually in my former home state of Wisconsin simultaneously we are looking at the same legislation as well, looking to pass it so I think that is a ray of hope for survivors that they are going to be able to use this tool to help them again, get the needed support and break that cycle and have really the ability to go forward with their lives and succeed, and the other thing I wanted to mention is national, and that’s the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, so there is this federal legislation that was passed in 2000 that actually gets reauthorized every two years and this year is the reauthorization year, so we are looking for support to make sure that the bill is passed and its reauthorized so we can go on really supporting the victims, helping break that cycle and leading and supporting them in survivorship and also holding perpetrators accountable.

Sandie: Wow, so breaking the cycle. That legislation sounds amazing because its like taking weights off of your ankles when you’re trying to run away form something and then you cant get away, so expunging records that’s kind of exciting. And it kind of leads into, so you take off the excess baggage that is holding a girl back and now then, the next phase is helping her move forward and that sense of empowerment, and I loved reading about your organization, Karissa, and knowing that there is such a focus on outcomes and results and believing, I think I am quoting, “ we believe in strong empowered voices.” So how are you doing that? What are some examples where you are seeing those kinds of results, Karissa?
Karissa: Well I think one of the important things that everyone that’s working on this issue can understand and learn from a survivor is that sometimes just being at the table in these kinds of conversations is a way to empower. We often invite survivors into conferences or into the classrooms and we say, “Tell your story.” And they could easily feel like they’re being exploited again and its being a form of entertainment or not even that but, you know, shock value or something like that to get people to donate or to act or get people to do something instead of really engaging them and bringing them to the table and hearing their story and picking up on the things that really need to be done because they’ve lived it, and I knew coming into this issue that I was 20 years apart from the streets where I was forced into prostitution and where this happened, I knew I had to talk to survivors that were there on the streets now, and I know I don’t know what’s going on right now and I know they do. So I think really engaging them and I think some movements in foster care have done this really well in engaging and empowering and creating organizations that are empowerment centered where they empower people who are not only survivors but they empower their organizations and the people that work with their organizations and they have an intention, and I think Marianna has really driven in NAIOC is that there is an intention there or having survivors at the table in what we do, and that doesn’t just include the person who has been exploited but their families as well. Their families are a key component to having us grown and understand this issue more.

Sandie: So, the link with foster care… Can you explain what you are talking about there, so we have a better understanding?

Karissa: Well, sure, foster care, there has been a movement to bring former foster youth and current foster youth to the table to say, “what can we do better in this, we’ve done some things wrong, were not having good outcomes” basically. So, I am part of several movements and organizations that bring foster youth to the table. A lot of times the most exploited, those young women who have been trafficked aren’t at the table necessarily to begin with, but it’s my job to bring them into those forums where their voice can be heard. So you know, foster youth are targeted and exploited because they don’t have families to protect them, we know that, so we know that there is a correlation to foster youth being exploited and we want to get DCFS involved and empower this group and these young women, not just look at them like ‘oh, they’re prostitutes’ or ‘they’re hookers’ or ‘look at them on the streets what they’re doing’ or ‘they want this life’ or ‘they want money’ or you know, and these are judgments that you will see institutions making in another form of trapping this young girl into that lifestyle. It separates them, instead of saying ‘please come to the table, we want to hear your voice, we want to know what’s going on with you and what your needs are’ oftentimes its just judgment, and ‘its all your fault’ and ‘go away’ and a lot of shame, basically and blame.

Sandie: I have heard you say shame and blame a couple of times now. This idea of looking back at foster care seems to me that we are going back and finding out how to stop this before it happens, not to find and rescue, which has to be one pillar of what we are doing, but actually doing prevention, and the foster care system seems to be one place where we can clearly identify some huge gaps. I was very encouraged when the White House announced that this year, January’s focus for human trafficking month is prevention. So instead of talking about awareness, we are talking about national human trafficking prevention. So the voices in the foster care reform movement are identifying the links to human trafficking. Every time I talk to someone or read another blog there is this idea that if these kids had the safety net of a family, everything for their future would change. The cycle would be broken. I was at a discussion table last year and heard a new word for me, it was, and I am going to try and say it very slowly: ‘family-less-ness’ and when you first started talking, Karissa, and talking about not feeling like you had a place in your own home, that sense of being abandoned and having no one to turn to, that turns to one of the key ingredients that promotes human trafficking, the sense of never having an option. Having no place to turn. Then when someone offers you just a false glimmer of hope based on a fraudulent dream, then you are very possibly vulnerable to accepting that and making a decision that changes the course of your life.

Karissa: I absolutely agree, and I would extend it even further to community-less-ness, that we are not only without family, but we are oftentimes without community, because we are forced not to go to school, and basically if we go to school we are turned into police or probation, so parts of our community, our friends and their friends families who may have supported us are no longer there because we’ve lost our community as well when we are taken into a system that ignores that we were ever part of a community.

Sandie: I love it that you brought up community, that’s kind of the direction I am going too. We hosted at Vanguard in October a Regional Summit on human trafficking of exploited minors and we had judge Boyd from Las Vegas and judge Honji Moji in Orange County, we had prosecutors and public defenders and victims service representatives and we identified some of the professional gaps, and we are working on those, but one of the key findings of that summit, it was a two day brain-storming discussion, was the gap in community engagement, and we are done with community awareness, we really need to move to community engagement and our next podcast after this one is really going to look at how were going to set community engagement in motion and our conference that’s coming up in march is about engaging the community to stand together, and this idea that there are children that don’t have a sense of community and don’t have someone to turn to and that we could, as a community, do something in our own backyard to end human trafficking.

Karissa: That’s right, community is central to this, and my focus has always been community development, economic development in a lot of ways and creating opportunities for people to engage around marketplaces and schools and giving incentives to do this by building stronger communities that give back and recycle love, hope, inspiration and even dollars within their own community.

Sandie: so, I think it’s really important for people to understand community engagement beyond some of the warmth and sense of belonging but the option to be a part of the working mechanisms in the community that are in the marketplace, that means its economic and you mentioned dollars and you talked about incentives, can you, we’ve got just a couple of minutes to wrap up, can you give me an understanding of what are the economic incentives that kids need when they don’t have resources? Because just telling them we believe in you, and we want you to be part of our community, those seem like rather empty promises.

Karissa: Yeah, sure, they need just like any of us, to see people close to them in their lives have job, have complete whole communities that care about the adults in their lives, they know that they are going to be an adult some day, its there in their conscious mind or subconscious mind and they see the way that we treat other people inside of their own community, they know that they will be a part of that community when they grown into adults, so if we have abandoned entire communities, which have done in the united states and especially in my home area of Fresno, California where we have these pockets of poverty where exploitation just feeds on people being without community and without family and without resources, then were just going to perpetuate this and we wont be able to convince anyone to work harder to be another exploited person, so we have to bring those opportunities in and really inject into communities and have them with our dollars, however we get this, invest into communities, and that’s what I try to convince people of on a daily basis is that, this is an investment and it will pay back so much more than we can just by handing out dollars, if we invest into communities and create opportunities.

Sandie: So, community development.

Karissa: Yes, community development.

Sandie: I was asked a couple of years ago to write something about community development, so write curriculum so I could go to the Karissa Phelps that are 12 years old and say ‘these are the signs of a perpetrator that’s going to exploit you, so don’t do this and don’t do that.’ Well what I learned is there really isn’t any way to create that kind of prevention module, it might affect a few but mostly kids who don’t have options are going to make decision that they feel are their only choices because their brains aren’t done, they don’t have the capacity to think beyond those strategies, so real prevention for me is, if I see a community with a single mom with a 10 year old daughter, she is unemployed, prevention is getting her a job.

Karissa: Yes, yes. And an opportunity to engage in the community and you sometimes its not a job, a lot of the young women I work with are becoming moms now that they aren’t ready, they are suffering from PTSD, they’re suffering from past life event that haven’t even begun to be addressed yet, and so we have to really think about the health of each of those people in the community as well and be committed to their success and not just say, go get a job so you could look productive, but you know, we really want you to be productive and feel rewarded in what you do, and that means lets address some of those issues ahead of time and get you engaged in this community movement, you’ll find that there’s a lot of generational exploitation and that we can engage parents and empower them and at the same time empower survivors because they are one in the same.

Sandie: So, as we wind up, tell me one nugget of joyful outcomes, I know you have a story about one of your mentors?

Karissa: Yeah, well I have 12 young women that I mentor, and some of them are in contact with me regularly and most of them are not, they’ll come in and out of my life but they know they have a sense of permanency in my life, which I think is important when we mentor, is to give people the chance to, you know they have the phone number they can call, or how to reach me when they need help and that could be a room for the night, help connecting them to resources or applying to college which is always great, its like, can I help you apply to college and get you thinking about other options and so I do have a young woman that I mentor who is going to be graduating from USC this year, and it is pretty exciting, its really, really exciting and it gives me kind of chills to think about  it because she has come a really long way and I know she is going to give back in major ways.

Sandie: Wow, and Marianna, you have a final word? Were going to have you back and focus on your expertise with legislation, but one final word before we sign off?

MS: Yeah, thanks for having me on and I look forward to talking to you more but yeah, I do want to stress the issue of prevention is very, very key. Out of the three pillars we often talk about, the prostitution, protection and prevention, prevention always somehow gets left out and actually this month on January first, I want to note that there is a law that just came into effect, the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, this is a unique law that is first in the nation that was passed in California and its going to focus on, you know, really primary prevention of exploitation on the labor side, and we focused a lot about minor sex trafficking, but what we see, not just internationally and not only with foreign victims that are exploited in the United States but with domestic victims as well that there is a lot of conflation and we see a lot of minors in sex trafficking that are also exploited in labor, so this act hopefully would encourage companies to clean up their act and look at their supply chains and where they’re getting their labor, whether it is in Thailand or in China or India or Africa, or its in east LA.

Sandie: Yeah, oh thank you so much, and actually for our listeners, if you want more on that we actually did podcast 17 because we are so excited about that new law, go back and listen to that, I want to thank our guests for their time and their expertise. Come back, come back to the conference, go to gcwj.vangaurd.edu to register now, call (714) 966-6361.

Dave: Actually, before were gonna let Karissa go, Karissa, you know we are recording this January 2012 but inevitably people will pick up this episode once your book is out, do you know how people will be able to get your book? Will it be on Amazon? Or any other website for folks to look into it?
Karissa: Yes, definitely, it’s being published by Viking, big publishing house, and its going to be available at every major bookstore, Amazon, ask for your bookstores to carry it if they done, and it should be there. I am super excited about it again, it’s going to be a great opportunity and I would love to come back on the show again whenever it comes out?
Sandie: Well you know what I want to do Karissa, I want to do pre-sales at our March conference can we do that?
Karissa: I think we can, I will put you in touch with the right people to do that.

Sandie: Okay, I think that would be really great for our attendees to get it first, so, thank you.

Dave: And that’s going to conclude our time for today, thank you Sandie for bringing another, several more experts to this conversation and helping us to study the issues, and just a reminder, the conference coming up in March, go to gcwj.vanguard.edu and of course you can reach us anytime with questions or comments about this podcast, (714) 966-6361 and thank you again to both of our guests today, Sandie.

Sandie: Thank you Marianna, thank you Karissa. Bye-bye.

Dave: Bye, everybody.

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