He knew how old she was –– 12 –– but because he had already paid the pimp, he forced her to have sex anyway. The fact that Carissa Phelps wasn’t yet a teen didn’t stop the man who felt entitled to her for a few hours that night in Fresno.
As shown in her documentary, “Carissa,” Phelps dropped out of school on her 12th birthday and left home to escape her abusive step-father. She wandered in the streets, homeless. After leaving home, Phelps encountered a man named Icey who promised to take care of her. He used her vulnerability to his advantage, turning her into a victim of human trafficking.
Prostitution, drugs and abuse immediately became Phelps’ new reality — a reality where she once faked a seizure to escape snorting cocaine. When her trafficker let her call her home, her mother didn’t offer to pick her up.
“I was on the streets alone,” Phelps says. “And I was with one person who was going to hold me captive basically as their sex slave.”
Phelps’ story is only one of many stories of modern-day slavery. According to The Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking organization, human trafficking is widespread both worldwide and in the Bay Area. Phelps has shared her experiences in both the documentary and an autobiography “Runaway Girl” to spread awareness.
Though slavery is now seen as one of America’s greatest blunders, outlawed in 1865, it still persists as forced prostitution and labor. Although human trafficking is an underground industry and is difficult to track, an estimated 17,000 people are trafficked in the U.S. per year, according to the U.S. State Department.
The issue is ongoing but received more attention in the Silicon Valley when Super Bowl 50 increased travel in the area. According to The Polaris Project, Silicon Valley, alongside Las Vegas and Chicago, is one of the biggest hubs for human trafficking in the U.S..
To prepare for the Super Bowl, organizations trained hospitals and airports to spot victims of human trafficking.
While such organizations primarily trained hospitals, law enforcement and airports, local initiatives continue to spread awareness among the general public.
The prevalence of human trafficking came to the attention of Palo Alto resident Niki Liming in 2013 through a friend. Liming, appalled, recruited the help of others at the Palo Alto Vineyard Church to host Use Your Feet for Freedom, an annual 5K walk-or-run event at Mitchell Park.
“The only way that human trafficking will ever end is if we all continue towards the end of it,” Liming says. “A lot of people just don’t know where they can make a difference. That’s a key thing that we try to do. Even coming to the 5K and paying those $35, is a huge thing because the money adds up.”
According to Lisa Blanchard, founder of the anti-trafficking organization Grateful Garments, high level of immigrants furnish the Bay Area’s human trafficking trade.
“Here in the Bay Area, more so than in most places of the United States, we are the great American melting pot,” Blanchard says. “Many people come from places where it’s common practice for people to have sex with children.”
According to Brian Wo, co-founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, BAATC, the Bay Area’s large population, the abundance of wealth and the frequency of movement in and out of the region also contribute to both commercial sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Despite its prevalence, people often remain unaware about this issue.
With the ability for people to remain anonymous online, many websites have become markets for traffickers to sell women and children for their services. According to Blanchard, traffickers focus on luring the weak, making children easy targets.
“It’s about somebody with a stronger, twisted, distorted personality thinking that they can make money by exerting power over others,” Blanchard says. “That’s existed since the dawn of man, where the strong has victimized the weak.”
Teens are targeted on the Internet, where traffickers lie about their identities in order to lure victims into the trade.
“There have been traffickers known to offer modeling jobs and to recruit online for victims,” Phelps says. “And this is for boys or girls. Anyone who says that they’ll take care of you or offer you gifts in exchange for sex, or sex with someone else, needs to be reported, and needs to stay away. Because there is basically nothing free, and a lot of the traffickers will offer the world to take care of you.”
Although many victims of human trafficking are forced into the industry, they are still frequently persecuted. This is largely because it is hard to tell the difference between a trafficking victim and someone who chooses to be a prostitute.
In California, those convicted of prostitution not only face up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, but also have great difficulty integrating back into everyday life. They are often rejected from safety homes, have difficulty finding jobs and are prevented from receiving government support. Without the adequate resources, it is extremely hard for survivors to escape and start a new, healthy life.
The San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking is working to change such policies that hinder or further punish trafficking survivors.
“We have survivors of human trafficking working with us on the policy level,” says Antonia Lavine, director of SFCAHT. “Every time we discuss policy problems, we have the survivors of human trafficking.”
Currently, organizations have begun to collaborate to assist with different aspects of a survivors recovery process.
Wo was attending a freedom summit, a community-based anti-human trafficking event, when the idea to create an organization to connect other agencies around the Bay Area occurred to him. As a result, Wo created BAATC, which helps organizations in the Bay Area to collaborate to assist victims. While BAATC itself does not work directly with victims, it trains organizations to address individual aspects of the larger problem in the Bay Area. Organizations will each fulfill things such as providing legal aid or shelter.
“We kind of see ourselves as a connecting organization around the Bay Area,” Wo says. “We have the idea of people doing different things, so we identify where there’s gaps or where there’s needs. Each county kind of has its own collaboration, like a task force, and so we’re part of the different county task force, helping everybody talk to each other around the region.”
Blanchard was shocked when she learned that all a human trafficking survivor was given in the hospital after recieving treatment for rape was a thin hospital gown. She then created Grateful Garments, which is dedicated to giving comfort to sex trafficking victims through clothes and flashlights.
According to Blanchard, traffickers use intimidation tactics to control victims, such as keeping them in the dark and withholding food and water from them. Many victims escape only when their brothel is raided, through a trip to the emergency room to treat physical abuse or by running away.
The influence of pimps reaches beyond their brothels. Traffickers often search for escaped victims, and survivors are at-risk for being trafficked again.
Through Freedom House, an organization which established the first safe house for human trafficking survivors in North California, survivors are able to fight for the arrest of their pimps, hide from their traffickers, continue their education and gain access to mental health services and other resources.
“A lot of people don’t understand the trauma that trafficking survivors have gone through and the importance of their safety,” says Jaida Im, the founder of the Freedom House. “Many of these places [aftercare homes] are not confidential and we are. We really take this seriously, because many of the perpetrators are still actively seeking out many women and children.”
Survivors often face post traumatic stress disorder and must deal with sexually transmitted diseases. They may also need therapy and mental health services as they enter the recovery process.
After Phelps escaped, she was sent to a juvenile detention hall, where she met mentors who encouraged her to pursue education. Today, she is a lawyer, author and advocate for runaway children.
“It’s a lifetime healing process; that’s what I can say for sure,” Phelps says. “Just like any other traumatic event, you’re going to have a lifetime of taking care of yourself, and making sure that you’re doing the right thing for yourself and for the people you love and the work that you do.”
Phelps emphasizes the importance of aiding survivors in the recovery process within the larger goal of ending trafficking.
“Survivors definitely have a tremendous amount of strength and human spirit, and it’s hard to beat down,” Phelps says. “This [human trafficking] is a very horrible crime that leaves marks, sometimes for the rest of their lives, and that’s why … we need to fight it.”
Education on this topic, including how to spot and help victims, is the biggest way to fight the problem.
Apart from furthering human trafficking awareness by integrating it into school curriculum, there are smaller organizations hosting events for people to get involved in the anti-human trafficking campaign. While human trafficking may seem like an overwhelmingly large issue, people can individually make a difference by volunteering, spreading awareness or fundraising.
“There is so much more out there that we are not aware of,” Im says. “The public and the community has to be more educated … that this crime is … in our own community.” v