19 – Runaway Girl

Ending Human Trafficking Podcast Logo

Survivors provide an important perspective on how we can work to end human trafficking. Sandie and Dave are joined by Carissa Phelps and Mariana Smirnova to discuss survivor empowerment and state and national legislation to address human trafficking.


Carissa Phelps

Carissa Phelps, Runaway Girl, Inc.’s founder and CEO, strives for social impact. She is a licensed attorney, author, trainer, consultant and small business owner. Carissa’s fearless leadership in the survivor community has led to an increased level of awareness among communities, as well as improved legislation and responses to human trafficking victims, especially children. In 2012, Carissa, founded Runaway Girl, Inc., a training company that offers survivor-led experiential trainings to individuals and communities. Runaway Girl, Inc. has offered hope to survivors through opportunities to lead in their own communities. As a social purpose corporation, the company has a charitable purpose to improve outcomes and create opportunities for runaway and homeless youth. Carissa’s inspiring memoir Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time, has been instrumental in changing countless hearts and minds. In 2008, she co-produced the award winning short documentary that took her back to the streets where she was trafficked at 12 years old. Her memoir and film are used as tools to train and teach by organizations worldwide. In 2007, Carissa earned both a Juris Doctorate and MBA from UCLA. In 2010, she was named one of the top 100 inspirational graduates by UCLA Anderson School of Management. She holds a BA in mathematics summa cum laude from Fresno State, and in 2013 she was celebrated as a Top Dog by the university. Carissa lives on the Central Coast of California, where she creates and contributes to positive impact businesses as a social entrepreneur.

Mariana Smirnova

Mariana has nine years of experience in human rights and compliance issues in supply chains, including human trafficking, conflict minerals, and raw materials traceability. Her expertise includes leading global collaborative projects, program management, policy analysis, standards and audit tool development, training, capacity-building, and research. Previously Marianna managed the raw materials and extractives auditing and advisory services program at UL’s Responsible Sourcing group. Marianna has a Master’s in International Public Affairs from the University of Wisconsin.

Key Points

  • Exploited people can become the exploiter, carrying on and normalizing 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.
  • It’s important to understand the circumstances that survivors faces, which lead to their exploitation, and to not blame or shame them.
  • A state policy trend is vacating and expunging criminal records for survivors so they can move on with their lives and decrease the barriers they face.
  • Survivors need to be at the table and need to be part of the conversation to understand how to end human trafficking.
  • Many victims not only face not having a family, but once victimized, also losing their community.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode 19, recorded in January 2012. Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:28] And I am Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:29] 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 continued conversation on how to support the conversation on ending human trafficking. And it’s great to be back with you for our ongoing efforts to bring more light to this issue.

Sandie [00:00:58] I’m really excited to be back. The Global Center for Women and Justice is off to a big 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, if you want to use email, you can always go to gcwj@vanguard.edu.

Dave [00:01:27] With the new year comes all kinds of new resources. And Sandie, before we jump in and welcome our guests today, because we do have a couple of guests that are joining.

Sandie [00:01:36] I am very excited about that.

Dave [00:01:36] Me, too. I know you wanted to mention something about the conference, which is coming up in just a couple of short months. We’ve been talking about it the last few months, but now it’s really close to happening.

Sandie [00:01:49] Oh, yes. And our conference Ensure Justice 2012 is called Standing Together to End the Exploitation of Girls. That’s why I’m so excited to have our guests today. But if you’re going to register for that, you want to get online at gcwj.vanguard.edu so you get the early bird rates. The conference is March 2nd and 3rd. Our guest speakers include Judge William Voy, who is a leading voice in the juvenile court system because of his proximity there to the issue 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, 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 [00:03:01] And that takes us right to our guests today, Sandie, and learning more about one of the big mantras 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 and part of our podcast always is studying the issues of human trafficking. And our guests today are going to help us to do that and really help us to learn more from experience and how we can study this issue to really be proactive voices in ending human trafficking.

Sandie [00:03:33] Thank you, Dave. I am very excited to introduce our guests today. Carissa Phelps brings the experience and the expertise into this issue that is difficult to find anywhere else. And her colleague, Mariana Smir–. I’m so sorry, Mariana. I was not going to do this. Mariana Smirnova has been her policy consultant on human trafficking. And so together, the experience and the expertise will bring a lot of light to this issue, and we’re just going to get started right away. Carissa, would you tell us about the organization that you’ve started?

Carissa [00:04:17] Sure. The organization is NAIOC. It’s National Alliance to Improve Outcomes for CSEC. And most of your listeners, if they’re up to this podcast, know that CSEC is commercial sexual exploitation of children and the organization is just doing exactly what the name says. Just focused on outcomes, improving those 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’re taking a focus on measuring and taking a look at outcomes and things that we could do by engaging the population of CSEC survivors to improve outcomes for them.

Sandie [00:05:07] Wow. Okay. Just in your statement, I want to go back to exploited people exploit, become exploiters. Can you explain what you meant by saying that?

Carissa [00:05:20] Sure. I mean, we’re all familiar with the concept, I think, of people that are abused may or may not become abusers, but that sometimes there’s a tendency for people to carry on the acts that have been done to them or to think that it’s okay to somehow normalize that activity. And so my experience in being a trafficking victim and a trafficking survivor was that I saw many of the people that abused and exploited me were also abused and exploited themselves in different realms, maybe, but they were also abused and exploited, whether that was in labor or some other area. That’s what I viewed both as a survivor and now working in this field.

Sandie [00:06:06] So that’s really important insight that we will all need to explore and understand better. Now, you’ve already identified for our listeners that you are a survivor, but that means then that you were a victim. And I’m 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?

Carissa [00:06:32] July 9th. And it is soon, July 9th when I look at the time it took to write the book. So yes, July 9th, 2012.

Sandie [00:06:41] Now I don’t want a spoiler, but can you tell us a little bit about what the story is in this book, Runaway Girl?

Carissa [00:06:50] Well, I mean, I really wanted to write a book that was honest and open and true to the struggle I think that we all go through in our human experience of trying to figure out the world. And my circumstances happened to be that I was in a mixed family. I had a step-father. I had some step brothers and sisters and we were a very large family of 11. And attention was an issue in my family, but also abuse. And I show a picture of that in the beginning. But I’m not pointing fingers or judging or holding grudges in the book. And I think that that’s really important process of where I am in my life that I’ve been able to forgive and move on. And I tell the story. I tell the story of running away from home because I didn’t feel like I had a place there anymore. And then ultimately being abandoned at the age of 12, given up on and trying to find my way to survive and being exploited again by people, I think, that in society had already been exploited in various ways. Some of them trafficked themselves as children and then becoming traffickers. So I lived through that at 12 years old, and I 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 that need a way out. And I kind of have used my ability to do well in school and standardized tests to go forward majoring in math at Fresno State and then going on graduating Summa and going on to law school at UCLA to pursue some form of justice for not only what I had gone through, but what people were continually going through in this cycle. That maybe I could raise some awareness, but then also do something about the issue. And I added the MBA to my program because I really felt that I needed to understand how decisions were being made in communities and in businesses and why people were exploited on some of the higher levels in society. So, it all came together and I’m here today and the story is just about that, that whole coming of age process. And I think a lot of people will identify, even if they haven’t been abused or exploited with some of the processes that I went through.

Sandie [00:09:34] Well, you used two words that really capture my attention. You were trapped and then you talk about the cycle. Now, a lot of people that I’ve met and I’ve heard their stories. That concept of being trapped is something that the average listener doesn’t understand, because the average listener thinks that you were locked in a room and tied up or handcuffed or something. Would you describe what were the factors that trapped you?

Carissa [00:10:07] Well, I mean, as a 12 year old, those things did happen to me. I was physically at times trapped with people having weapons against me. But then there were times where I could have walked out of the door. The door was not locked. But I was trapped by fear, really, paralysis of I think what we 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. And I think children, especially because they don’t have a great big bag of resources to pull from or experience, often freeze. They freeze and they just are told what to do and they respond to whatever adult is there telling them what to do. And so when there are people that are exploiting or taking advantage of them, they’re very vulnerable. And then we trap them sometimes in society by saying things like, Why didn’t you run away? Why didn’t you get help? Why did 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 out of a necessity to survive.

Sandie [00:11:30] So, that sense of being trapped and then caught in that cycle, it seems that what, Mariana, what you bring to the table is the legislation that is designed to interrupt that cycle. And what are some of the most promising policy directions that are out there right now to help interrupt that cycle?

Mariana [00:11:57] Thanks. And I think policies just one way to deal with and address human trafficking. And policy is a very intricate process. Sometimes you enact a policy, but then it’s not fully implemented. So it’s really important to see the whole process through. But some of the things that we’re looking at is 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 when we see children, but also 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, right. The juvenile criminal system or it’s the DCFS or it’s, you know, the immigration enforcement for adults or it’s 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 systems. So working with DCFS, working with probation and changing those mindsets. But more broadly, for example, on state level right now, there’s actually a very interesting trend that has happened in several different states, which is expunging or vacating convictions for survivors of trafficking. So as I’ve mentioned, again, a lot of times the system doesn’t respond properly. And instead of criminalizing and holding perpetrators accountable, it criminalizes the victim. So what we’re trying to do is actually if when that has happened and then survivors go on carrying these convictions on their record or they have a juvenile record, it’s really hard that it basically creates almost impossible barriers to reintegrate into society and lead a normal life, because there are barriers in getting education, there are barriers in getting housing, there are barriers in getting jobs. So would a lot of states have done already, states like Illinois and New York and Maryland and Nevada, have passed vacating convictions laws that would help vacate the criminal record for survivors of trafficking if they were convicted of any criminal activities that were 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’s a ray of hope for survivors that they’re going to be able to use this tool to help them, again, get the support, the needed support and break that cycle and have really the ability to go forward with their lives and succeed. And the other thing that I wanted to mention is national, and that’s the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. So, there’s this federal legislation that was passed in 2000, and actually gets reauthorized every two years and is very important in this year, is the reauthorization year. And we’re looking for everyones support to make sure that the bill is passed and is reauthorized so we can go on really supporting the victims, helping break that cycle and supporting them in survivorship and also holding perpetrators accountable.

Sandie [00:16:02] Wow. So breaking the cycle, that legislation sounds amazing because it’s like taking weights off of your ankles when you’re trying to run away from something and then you can’t get away. So expunging records, that’s very exciting. And it kind of leads into okay, so you take off the excess baggage that is holding a girl back and now then, the next phase is helping her move forward. That sense of empowerment. And I loved reading about your organization, Carissa, and knowing that there is such a focus on outcomes and results and believing, I think I’m quoting, we believe in strong, empowered voices. So how are you doing that? Can you give us some examples of where you’re seeing those kind of results, Carissa?

Carissa [00:16:59] 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 conversations is a way to empower. We often invite survivors into conferences or into the classrooms, and we say, tell your story. And, you know, they could easily feel like they’re being exploited again. It’s 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 to do something instead of really engaging them and bringing them to the table and hearing their voice and hearing their stories and picking out, you know, 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 it because I know I don’t know what’s going on right now. I know they do. So really engaging them. And I think some movements in foster care have done this really well and engaging and empowering and creating organizations that are empowerment centered, that they not only empower those people that are survivors, but they empower their organizations and people that work with their organizations. And they have an intention. And I think Mariana has really driven this in NAIOC is that there’s an intention there of 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 grow and understand this issue more.

Sandie [00:19:01] So the link with foster care. Can you explain what you’re talking about there so we have a better understanding?

Carissa [00:19:11] Well, sure. I mean, foster care, there’s been a movement to bring former foster youth and current foster youth to the table to say, you know what can we do better in this? We know we’ve got some things wrong. We’re not having good outcomes, basically. So I’m part of several movements, organizations that, and the organizations I work with bring foster care to the 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 help bring them into those forums where their voice can be heard. So foster youth are targeted and exploited because they do not have families there to protect them. And we know that. So we know there’s a correlation 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 and they want money or they, you know. And these are judgments that you’ll see institutions making and another form of trapping this young girl into that lifestyle is, you know, it separates them instead of saying please come to the table. We want to hear your voice. We want to hear what’s going on with you and what your needs are. Oftentimes, it’s just judgment and go away and it’s all your fault, basically. A lot of shame and blame.

Sandie [00:20:55] I’ve heard you say shame and blame a couple of times now. This idea of looking back at foster care seems to mean that we’re going back and finding out how to stop this before it happens, not how to find and rescue, which that has to be one pillar of what we’re 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 national human trafficking awareness, we’re 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’m going to try and say it very slowly, familylessness. Familylessness. And when you first started talking, Carissa, 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 creates one of the key ingredients that promotes human trafficking. The sense of never having an option. Having no place to turn. And then when someone offers you just a glimmer of hope based on a false, fraudulent dream, then you’re very possibly vulnerable to accepting that and making a decision that changes the course of your life.

Carissa [00:23:05] I absolutely agree. And I would extend it even further to communitylessnes that we, we’re not only without family, but we’re oftentimes without community because we’re forced not to go to school. And basically, if we go to school, then we’re turned into police or probation. So we have parts of our community, our friends, their friends, the friends and their families who may have supported us are no longer there because we’ve lost our community as well when we’re taken into a system that ignores that we’re ever part of a community.

Sandie [00:23:48] I love it that you brought up community. That’s kind of the direction I’m going to. We hosted at Vanguard in October a Regional Summit on Human Trafficking of Exploited Minors, and we had Judge Voy from Las Vegas and Judge Doug Hatchimonji here in Orange County. We had prosecutors and public defenders and victim service representatives, and we identified some of the professional gaps, and we’re working on those. But one of the key findings of that summit, it was a two-day brainstorming discussion, was the gap in community engagement. And we’re 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 do we begin 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 who do not have a sense of community, they don’t have someone to turn to, and that we could, as a community, do something in our own backyard to end human trafficking.

Carissa [00:25:04] And that’s right. Community is central to this. And I think that’s, you know, my focus has always been community development, community economic development in a lot of ways. And creating opportunities for people to engage around, you know, marketplaces and around schools and giving incentives to do that by building stronger communities that give back and recycle love, hope, inspiration and even dollars within their own community.

Sandie [00:25:38] So I think it’s really important for people to understand community engagement beyond some of the warmth and the sense of belonging, but the option to be a part of the working mechanisms in a community that are in the marketplace, that means it’s economic. And you mentioned dollars and you talked about incentives. Can you, we’ve just got 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 to me seem like rather empty promises.

Carissa [00:26:27] Sure. Yeah. No, they need, just like any of us, to see people close to them in their lives have jobs, have complete whole communities that care about the adults in their lives. They know that they’re going to be an adult someday. It’s 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 grow into adults. And so if their community, if we have abandoned entire communities, which we’ve 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, without family and without resources, then we’re just going to perpetuate this. And we won’t get people, we won’t be able to convince anyone to work harder to be another exploited person. So we have to bring those opportunities in and really inject opportunities into communities and have them with our dollars, with our dollars, where however we get those, 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 and so much more than we can just by handing out dollars. If we invest into communities and create opportunities.

Sandie [00:28:03] So, community development. I was asked a couple of years ago to write something on prevention, so write curriculum so that I could go to the Carissa 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 that there 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 decisions 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 where there’s a single mom with a ten or 11 year old daughter and she’s unemployed, prevention is getting her a job.

Carissa [00:28:53] Yes. Yes. And an opportunity to engage in the community. And maybe it’s not a job because, you know, a lot of the young women that I work with are becoming moms now. And they’re not ready. They’re suffering from PTSD. They’re suffering from past life events 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 we really want you to be productive and feel rewarded in what you do. And that means let’s address some of your 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, engage survivors because they’re one and the same.

Sandie [00:29:46] So as we wind up tell me one nugget of joyful outcomes. I know you have a story about one of your mentorees.

Carissa [00:29:57] 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 come in and out of my life, but they know that they have a sense of permanency in my life, which I think is important when we mentor, is to give people the chance to always know what phone number to 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. It’s 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’s going to be graduating from USC this year, and it’s pretty exciting. It’s really, really, really exciting. And it gives me chills right now to think about it because she’s come a very long way and I know she’s going to give back in major ways.

Sandie [00:30:52] Wow. Thank you. And Mariana, do you have a final word? We’re going to have you back and just focus on your expertise with legislation. But do you have one final word before we sign off.

Mariana [00:31:02] Oh, yeah, thanks for having me on and I look forward to talking to you more. But yeah, I do want to stress, I think the issue of prevention is very, very key. That’s out of the three pillars that we often talk about, the prosecution, protection, and prevention. Prevention always somehow gets left out. And so actually this month on January 1st, 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 it’s going to focus on really primary prevention of exploitation on the labor side. And while we focused a lot today talking about minor sex trafficking, 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 really conflation of the two crimes and we see minors in sex trafficking that are also exploited in labor. So this act hopefully would encourage companies to clean up their act and to look at their supply chains and where they’re getting their labor, whether it’s in Thailand or in China or India or Africa or it’s in East L.A..

Sandie [00:32:25] Yeah, yeah. Oh, thank you so much. And actually, for our listeners, if you want a little more on that, we actually did podcast 17 to because we’re 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 to the conference, go to gcwj.vanguard.edu to register now. Call 714-966-6361. I have to learn my new phone number. Dave, tell us the number to call and leave your questions.

Dave [00:33:02] Yeah. And actually, before we let Carissa go, Carissa, you know, we’re recording this January 2012, but inevitably people will pick up this episode once your book is out. Do you know yet how people will be able to get your book? Will it be available on Amazon or any other website for folks to look into it?

Carissa [00:33:17] Yes, definitely. So it’s being published by Viking, big publishing house and it’s going to be available at every major bookstore. Amazon, ask for your bookstores to carry it if they don’t and it should be there and I’m 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 [00:33:40] Well, and you know what I want to do, Carissa? I want to do pre-sales at our March conference. Can we do that?

Carissa [00:33:45] I think we can. I’ll put you in touch with the right people to do that.

Sandie [00:33:50] Okay. I think that would be really great for our our attendees to get it first. So, thank you.

Dave [00:33:56] And that’s going to conclude our time today. Sandie, thank you so much for bringing several more experts to this conversation and helping us to study the issues. And just a reminder, the conference upcoming in March. Go to gcwj.vanguard.edu and of course you can reach us any time with questions or comments about this podcast. 714-966-6361. And thank you again to both of our guests today, Sandie.

Sandie [00:34:23] Thank you, Mariana. Thank you, Carissa. Bye bye.

Dave [00:34:26] Bye, everybody.

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