By MIke Rhodes
Editors note: This is a shortened version of a longer story that appears at http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/02/12/18478719.php
Carissa Phelps was 12 years old when she was forced into prostitution on the mean streets of Fresno. Carissa’s mom had taken her to Juvenile Hall as an "out of control" youth. She ran away, eventually living with the families of friends, cleaning house and watching younger children. She did not attend school. Carissa said her friends uncle "put his arm around me and said I’m going to take care of you and you're going to take care of me. I was terrified of him, I knew he was a drug dealer, but I thought I had to follow along. I was 12 years old and just a baby.”
Carissa Phelps has returned to Fresno to put a spotlight on the sexual exploitation of youth, which she says is still happening today. She says "it was really easy to be abused. All I was looking for was love and attention." "He took me to a hotel. I tried to get out of the window in the bathroom, but it was too small. I then had sex with him, it was the worst experience of my life. This was supposed to be someone who could be trusted, an adult."
The first person she met after leaving the hotel was Shondra, a prostitute, Shondra’s pimp took Carissa into a world where she was sold for sex, raped, and sold for crack cocain. Carissa said,"I wanted to die." She said she gets asked why she didn’t go to the police. "They were seen like the enemy." When a police officer did pick her up, Carissa says, "He did not take me to a hospital where I should have gone and be treated for rape and trauma. He took me to jail."
It was in Juvenile Hall where things started to turn around. Teachers helped her study Algebra and get rape counseling and therapy. She soon attended a continuation high school and then college. "When I went to law school I was trying to change what happened to me from happening to someone else. I always knew, when I was 12 years old, that if I made it out of this that I would come back and shine a spotlight on that little 12 year old girl, that is walking down the street that is scared and alone, so that the right people can see her and help her and the wrong people won’t be able to get her so easily."
"I thought I could change the world with law. I realized, that laws can change and things stay the same on the ground." She asked, "how could I actually change the system? Why is it big money and big corporations that are controlling us? She went to business school and later left a coveted job in a private equity fund. Carissa came back to Fresno. She wanted to come back to Motel Drive and tell the story."
Her documentary (http://www.carissaproject.com) will be touring at movie festivals around the country and in places where at risk youth can see it.
Since her return, Carissa has been involved in community organizing. She says, “You can drive down to Motel Drive today and find children, ages 12 - 17 that are being sexually exploited. These young girls are going back to pimps that are beating them up, choking them, telling them they are worthless pieces of crap. If that was happening to children, or even adults in a workplace, we would stand up and do something about it.”