At the age of 12, Carissa Phelps, this year’s Bonner & Bonner lecturer, was abandoned by her mother and was forced into the world of child exploitation.
She was taken in by a friend’s uncle, and after he sexually assaulted her, she was picked up by another man who forced her into prostitution.
“It was the worst 10 days of my life,” Phelps said. “I was brutalized, raped, told that I was nothing, that I belonged to him. That’s why I share my story. It’s because I know there are young women like me, and young boys as well, who are vulnerable and are just waiting for that one helping hand.”
Phelps, now CEO of Runaway Girl FPC in addition, to practicing employment law in California, found help from a counselor and a math teacher in Juvenile Hall and turned her life around.
She graduated summa cum laude from Fresno State in California and received her juris doctorate from UCLA. Today, she mentors children from similar situations and speaks about her own experience all over the country.
“I thought she was very interactive and very inspirational, and it took a lot of courage to get up and talk about what she had been through,” said Crystal Maurath, sophomore elementary education major.
Phelps said that changing the language is one of the struggles the movement faces because child prostitution doesn’t properly describe the situation. She said that President Barack Obama was correct when he called it “modern day slavery” in his address to the Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday afternoon.
“The evening when I left, when I was taken away from him, I was taken to jail and I was locked up and I just want that response to change towards kids,” Phelps said.
Phelps said the legal system also was a challenge because even after escaping their past, the legal record of what happened can prevent the victims of exploitation from finding work, particularly work in the government.
One of Phelps’ main points is that human trafficking can and does happen everywhere and that people have to be aware of the issue.
Phelps said that helping spread knowledge about sex trafficking and helping prevent the culture that ignores it are important ways for people to help.
“It was really informative. We talked in some of my classes about human sex trafficking, and she covered a lot of stuff you can’t learn in a class,” said Amanda Heiniger, junior sociology major. “So it was good to hear the experience, rather than just cold hard facts you learn in class.”
Over 500 tickets were distributed for the event.