The kidnapping of a child doesn't always start with someone grabbing that child from the street or a playground. For a 12-year-old runaway girl the simple offer of a ride to an unknown destination was enough for her to surrender her freedom and become a commodity to one, and then to many.
This story, my story, would be left in the past, if it were not repeating itself over and over, minute by minute.
Statistics tell us that one in three runaways will be lured toward sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home. But only experience can shed light on the fact that in Fresno, the city where I was trafficked, child victims have gone unnoticed and without services for decades. There is no number that can show us what happened before anyone was looking, caring or counting.
I tell my story first off because I am not a statistic. I am human and to make an issue human we need to see the people involved, befriend them, understand that they are real — that they laugh, cry, breathe and dream — just like we do. When we know only the facts, we tend to miss the point, but when we know people, when we know survivors — whether they were "child soldiers" or "child sex workers" — we see them and we have compassion for something we did not previously understand.
I was 12 years old and jumped into a man's car. He offered me a hot dog and soda in exchange for "taking care of him." Unable to escape through the bathroom window of the old motel room he had rented, I was kidnapped, but no one was looking for me. I was forced, and upon his departure and vows to return, I managed my escape only to find myself soon manipulated by a battered woman and the pimp trafficker who had assaulted her.
Having been sold for sex, raped and traded for crack cocaine, I eventually found my way out. On my journey through graduate school, more than 15 years later, I thought I had buried this story. But instead I found myself compelled to share and to inspire others to do the same. I wrote "Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets" because with the choices I had, I was never a "child prostitute" — actually no such job title exists. What I was and what I am today is a survivor of kidnapping, sexual assault, child endangerment and commercial sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking is a deplorable crime against individuals, children and society. Yet buyers and sellers continue to benefit, as good people with big hearts turn a blind eye to how sex trafficking happens in their own community. Like any other scammer or criminal, traffickers want us to believe the false story — that someone we know cannot be tortured, kidnapped, assaulted and enslaved — without it being on the evening news. That someone we ignore as a victim must have been at fault, or at least made a choice to run away, be on their own or accept a ride to an unknown destination. I share my story so those same good people with big hearts will have a chance to know the truth.
Today, many more women and men stand alongside each other as survivors of human trafficking. Painful, forgotten or buried experiences now take on a purpose. The reach of our stories of suffering, survival and against-all-odds success goes far beyond any lie told by traffickers. And as we share, we move toward those who are suffering at this moment, those whose stories have yet to be told. We proudly show them there is a way out, and when they are free they join us with a new purpose and destiny to be lived.
Statewide, survivors are joined in this effort by the California Office of Emergency Services which has committed more than $5 million through nine human trafficking task forces. In addition, California’s network of regional fusion centers, including the State Threat Assessment Center, through many channels including survivors’ experiences, works to better understand the evolving threat, the criminals, their techniques, tactics and procedures and shares this information across state.
Only through collaborative efforts and partnerships with law enforcement, victim service providers, non-government organizations and academic institutions can we bring light to this dark and hidden crime, take a stand by raising public awareness, and make community members aware of what is happening in their own backyards.
After graduating from UCLA with a joint MBA and law degree, Carissa Phelps authored "Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets" (Viking, Penguin). In 2012, she founded Runaway Girl, FPC (www.runawaygirl.org) to create employment opportunities and organize survivors of all forms of human trafficking around resources, networks, businesses and local efforts to protect and care for survivors and victims within their communities. Email Runaway Girl at firstname.lastname@example.org and invite survivors in your community to be a part of your response to end human trafficking.