- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- SURVIVE AND CONQUER: Trafficking survivor Carissa Phelps combats human trafficking by working with survivors through her Flexible Purpose Corporation (FPC), Runaway Girl.
Like many survivors of sex trafficking, Shell Beach resident Carissa Phelps endured a difficult childhood. She eventually decided to run away from her stepfather and dysfunctional home. At the advice of a probation officer, she said, her mother later took her to a juvenile detention facility in Fresno, more than 60 miles away from where she lived in Coalinga.
But where she ultimately ended up was on the streets, which is where she said a friend’s uncle took her to a motel where he planned to keep and continually abuse her. Phelps escaped, she explained, only to be victimized by a pimp whom she said raped and trafficked her for about 10 days until he was pulled over and arrested after providing false identification. Phelps was arrested along with him and later charged with a probation violation for running away.
She was 12 years old at the time.
After being trafficked, Phelps said other people who found out about her past would attempt to traffic her as well.
“Once I was trafficked, then I had this label on me,” she said.
A friend’s dad gave her drugs and attempted to “groom” her for trafficking, she said. That’s a common tactic among sex traffickers, and a so-called friend attempted to arrange “dates” for her so he could make money to buy drugs.
Phelps is now a licensed attorney, author of the memoir Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time, and founder of a Flexible Purpose Corporation (FPC) also titled Runaway Girl, which helps create employment and career opportunities for survivors of human trafficking.
No one was ever charged for trafficking or attempting to traffic Phelps, but the pimp is currently in prison after receiving three strikes for other crimes, she said. Phelps said he won’t be getting out, but that didn’t stop him from trying to reach out to her for legal advice after he learned she was an attorney from a filmmaker who made a documentary about her, titled Carissa.
Federal law defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
The Office of the Attorney General of California states that human trafficking, which includes both sex and labor trafficking, is “the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise and is an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry.”
While sex trafficking may be thought of as something that happens in metropolitan areas and overseas, Phelps said it’s happening here on the Central Coast, and points to Internet sites, a location in Lompoc referred to as “pussy alley,” massage parlors, and even ads in the back of local publications as potential connections to sex trafficking.
“When I came to Cuesta, I remember the ads in the back of your newspaper that said ‘stripping, dancing opportunity,’ and meeting a guy down at Denny’s who really wanted me to do more than that,” Phelps told this New Times reporter.
Phelps said many young women and men fall prey to trafficking here on the Central Coast, and that more direct action is needed on a daily basis to help victims in the area.
“One law enforcement agent out of Santa Maria, he said, ‘I can identify five victims right now—child victims of trafficking. And everyone’s having meetings and doing all this stuff, and I just want to help them. Can somebody help them?’”
Phelps added, “I would challenge San Luis Obispo County to think about, you know, who’s gonna be here on the day-to-day response. That’s important.”
Part of that response should involve the trafficking survivors themselves, Phelps said, as she believes they offer hope to those who are still being victimized and understand the issue in a way no one else does.
After a conference on human trafficking held by local anti-human-trafficking group the Mountainbrook Abolitionists in SLO in 2013, two local survivors identified themselves—one from Atascadero and one from SLO. Phelps said that more survivors in the area need to come forward and get involved with the fight against human trafficking, which is what motivated her to start Runaway Girl.
“It’s not gonna be only me … we need to know who it’s gonna be. Who are the local survivors that are gonna read your article, that are gonna step up and say, ‘You know, this happened to me and I don’t want it to happen to anybody else’?” Phelps asked.
While there may not be many well-known incidents of sex trafficking in SLO County, in October of 2013 officers from the San Luis Obispo Police Department went to a SLO motel where it was believed that a 15-year-old victim of sex trafficking was being held by two Fresno men: Michael Andrade, 33, and Javiar Solis, 28. The officers were able to locate the 15-year-old, and though Andrade and Solis weren’t present at the time, they were arrested in Fresno on Dec. 3, 2013, and indicted by a federal grand jury on suspicion of sex trafficking of a minor.
Andrade and Solis are accused of using continuing force and fear tactics to coerce two girls, the 15-year-old and a 17-year-old, into multiple acts of prostitution in both Fresno and San Luis Obispo in late 2013.
It’s also alleged that both girls were forced to use illegal drugs and that the 15-year-old was brought to a Fresno tattoo parlor where the defendants’ nicknames—“Dove” and “Joker”—were tattooed on her shoulders in a practice commonly employed by pimps as a sign of “ownership.”
After her mother brought her home to the Central Valley, the 17-year-old informed Fresno Police that the 15-year-old remained in the SLO motel under the control of the defendants, and SLOPD was notified.
Detention orders indicate that both Andrade and Solis are known gang members with prior criminal records. If convicted, they could serve 15 years to life in prison and face a fine of $250,000.
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- SOCIAL JUSTICE: Assistant Social Services Director for SLO County Tracy Schiro is working to create a new protocol for how to handle cases of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in SLO County.
Just two days prior to SLOPD discovering the 15-year-old at the motel, representatives from the Department of Social Services of San Luis Obispo County, the Probation Department, Mental Health Services, the Suspected Abuse Response Team, and the Sheriff’s Office took part in training in Southern California conducted by the Oakland-based organization MISSSEY—an acronym for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth.
SLO Social Services was called out to assist with the 15-year-old victim, and Assistant Social Services Director Tracy Schiro credits the training with MISSSEY for better preparing them for the situation.
“At the MISSSEY training, we learned that what the youth in these situations need first and foremost is a medical exam,” Schiro said.
SLO Social Services took the 15-year-old to a hospital for a medical assessment where social workers stayed with her while she was examined, treated, and counseled.
Though the girl identified herself as a victim, which allowed SLO Social Services to step in and provide support, such exchanges aren’t always the case in areas where these crimes are more common. In some cases, minors are arrested for prostitution and are taken to a juvenile detention facility for booking rather than to a medical facility for treatment. The MISSSEY training emphasizes the need for law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, and social services to treat victims as victims rather than criminals.
SLO Social Services has convened another training session with MISSSEY on the issue of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC), which took place in SLO on April 25 at Mountainbrook Community Church, and was led by the cofounder and executive director of MISSSEY, Nola Brantley.
The training is part of an ongoing effort by SLO Social Services to develop a protocol that will define when and how Social Services will be included in cases involving sexual exploitation of children or CSEC in SLO County.
According to MISSSEY, the distinction between sexually exploited children and CSEC is that “sexually exploited children exchange sex to have their basic needs met (i.e., food, clothing, shelter, care), whereas commercially sexually exploited children exchange sex so that a third party can profit from the sale of their body. Both children are victims, CSEC are victims of human trafficking.”
The protocol will let law enforcement agencies know to immediately contact Child Welfare Services, a division of Social Services, when these types of cases occur so they can take the lead in addressing the needs of the youth involved. In addition, Schiro said SLO Social Services is working with community members and other agency partners to develop resources to help keep affected youth safe and help them “move away from this lifestyle and return to their childhood.”
As part of the new protocol, SLO Social Services will use a new computer code to track reports of CSEC in order to better understand the frequency at which they occur in SLO County.
The Mountainbrook Abolitionists also took steps to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of sex trafficking in SLO County by helping the SLO County Office of Education with a survey of unaccompanied homeless youth, conducted between Feb. 15 and April 24.
The focus of the survey was to help determine which services are most needed for homeless youth and how to better connect homeless youth with those services, but volunteers from the Mountainbrook Abolitionists also took the opportunity to collect data on sex trafficking—given that homeless youth are often targeted by traffickers.
As of time of publication, Mountainbrook Abolitionists hadn’t yet released the results, but founder Rebecca Turner said they “are finding that it is very common for the young homeless population to be exploited, and we have been told of instances of both labor and sexual exploitation within multiple cities in SLO County.”
Between 2007 and 2014, the number of homeless students identified by school districts in SLO County in grades 12 and below, which includes but isn’t limited to unaccompanied youth, went up from 637 to 2,210.
An FBI press release indicated that the 17-year-old victim in the Andrade-Solis case was, like Phelps, a runaway—one of several commonalties identified among CSEC in a study conducted by MISSSEY.
Of the 149 youth assessed by MISSSEY between Aug. 30, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2007, 82 percent had previously run away from home multiple times, 61 percent had been raped one or more times, 60 percent had previously been arrested for solicitation, 58 percent were currently on probation, and 55 percent were foster care youth from group homes.
Group homes, as the name implies, are homes designed to house groups of children, run by a staff and licensed by the state. On average, SLO County has about 350 kids in foster care with only about a dozen or so housed in group homes, all of whom have plans to find other living arrangements.
There are currently two group homes operating in SLO County, and though there are no known incidents of trafficking involving residents of either one, Schiro said Social Services won’t sign off on any new group homes. Every group home in SLO County must be approved by both Social Services and the Probation Department.
“Children don’t do as well living and being raised in a group home by staff,” Schiro said. “Children need to be raised by parents.”
Schiro believes that group homes should be a last resort, and she works to keep the number of kids housed in group homes very low, in part because in other areas they’ve been used as recruiting grounds by sex traffickers. However, she does say such homes have been successful for some kids.
“There are kids who will tell us that the group homes are what worked for them … but it’s very few kids that tell me that that’s the best for them,” Schiro said.
Some group homes are able to offer intensive therapeutic treatments and round-the-clock care, which can be beneficial in some cases.
Generally speaking, Schiro believes that it’s their vulnerability and need to seek out some sort of family that makes foster kids susceptible to being trafficked.
She says that even if workers find them the best of homes, there’s still a part of them looking for a family or wishing it could have been different, and that some kids can act out in anger.
“We do everything we can to help them work through that anger and get them therapy, but some kids don’t, and so some kids are out looking to make their own family, and then they’re targets,” she said. “They’re vulnerable to someone who claims that ‘I’ll be your family.’”
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- MODERN-DAY ABOLITIONISTS: The fight against modern-day slavery requires modern-day abolitionists. Founder Rebecca Turner and members of the Mountainbrook Abolitionists meet regularly at Mountainbrook Community Church.
In SLO County, foster kids have an opportunity that Schiro believes could help provide that sense of family thanks to a unique program known as the Transitional Age Youth-Financial Assistance Program (TAY-FAP). Put in place in May of 2010, the program provides college funds for foster and former foster youth. Since its inception, more than 120 foster and former foster youth have attended school as part of the program, with very few dropping out.
The average cost per student in the program is about $4,000 per year. The money helps cover tuition, housing, transportation, and school supplies. Once participants in the program have exhausted other means of financial assistance, TAY-FAP will cover the entire gap in funding needed for them to attend school.
“For kids who are looking for a way to fit in, a family to belong to, to feel good about themselves, my hope is that TAY-FAP gives them that,” Schiro said.
She noted that SLO County Social Services, as well as other counties and non-government agencies, like MISSSEY or Runaway Girl, are part of a movement that opposes criminalizing minors for prostitution.
“You aren’t of age to give consent, so how could you be a prostitute if you’re not of age to give consent?” Schiro asked. “It’s such common sense, and yet kids get arrested all the time for prostitution … in the big cities especially.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney of SLO County, Jerret Gran, said that to his knowledge SLO County hasn’t prosecuted a minor for prostitution during his time with the DA’s office. While Gran couldn’t rule out the possibility of prosecuting a minor suspected of prostitution—stating, “we evaluate every case independently”—he emphasized that in such cases the office would “focus on the circumstances and the juvenile’s situation” and “be very careful in evaluating where the influence lies.”
There are two California bills—SB 327 and SB 738—that would change the way trafficking survivors and sexually exploited minors would be treated by the legal system. Both bills passed the Senate in May of 2013 with the support of Democratic Sen. Bill Monning, who represents SLO County. The bill is now awaiting approval by the State Assembly; Republican Assemblymen Katcho Achadjian, who also represents the county, said he plans to support the bills as well.
SB 327 would allow survivors of human trafficking who’ve been convicted of a crime to be brought before a court to determine if detention is lawful, if expert testimony on human trafficking was presented at trial, and if there’s reasonable probability that had that testimony been presented the outcome may have been different. The bill would also give authorization to the Board of Parole Hearings to report the names of individuals who in their judgment should be pardoned or have their sentences commuted, given that there’s evidence those individuals had been victims of human trafficking at the time of their offense. In addition, the board would be required to give weight to any such evidence or information in their review to determine an individual’s suitability for parole.
Existing law provides such provisions in cases of domestic abuse, which are meant to protect survivors of domestic violence who’ve committed violent acts against their abusers. SB 327 would extend those same rights to survivors of human trafficking.
SB 327 is sometimes referred to eponymously as the Sara Kruzan bill. Kruzan is a sex trafficking survivor who was “groomed” for commercial sexual exploitation by her trafficker starting at age 11 and trafficked at age 13. She later killed her abuser at age 16, was sentenced to life in prison without parole at 17, and, after being granted clemency by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011, was released in 2013 at the age of 35.
Bill SB 738 would allow a minor to become a dependent of the court if he or she is a victim of human trafficking or sexual exploitation, and would mandate group home administrators, foster parents, and relative or nonrelative caregivers to undergo instruction on providing adequate care to sexually exploited and trafficked minors. In addition, the bill would enact a State Plan to Serve and Protect Sexually Exploited and Trafficked Minors, which must be submitted no later than Jan. 30, 2015.
Under current law, there are already provisions allowing for a child to become a dependent of the court if that child is inadequately supervised, protected, and provided for, but SB 738 would expand those provisions.
“The key thing for us in Child Welfare is that it makes it Child Welfare’s issue,” Schiro said.
Traditionally, Child Welfare is involved in cases of abuse committed in the home by a caregiver, while incidents taking place outside the home aren’t considered to be their issue.
“What SB 738 would say is yes it is,” Schiro said. “That even though that child may not … be a victim at the hands of their parents in their own home, they would be a Child Welfare issue, and that’s a huge shift. Huge. And it’s a good shift.”
Considering that a substantial percentage of trafficked minors have been in the foster care system, some locals may question whether placing a trafficking victim in foster care would be the right choice.
“I think it’s a fair thing for them to think,” Schiro said.
She noted that some kids have been trafficked after running away from foster care, and some by their own parents after they regained custody. She added that trafficking victims often need drug and alcohol treatment, which Child Welfare Services can provide, along with mental health treatment and counseling.
She also emphasized the need for training for foster care parents on how to properly care for trafficking victims, something that SB 738 would put in place, and encourages her staff to talk to foster kids about what didn’t work them in the foster care system.
“The hope is that we can wrap our arms around this child and find out what is going to work for them and how to get them out of that life … you have to make some change,” Schiro said.
Contact Calendar Editor Trever Dias at firstname.lastname@example.org.