When Carissa Phelps was 12, she dropped out of seventh grade in the small town of Coalinga, Calif. Her homelife was dysfunctional and soon, she ran away.
Her life on the streets took its toll, and before long the unthinkable happened: she was kidnapped by a pimp and forced into prostitution.
Today, Phelps is a success story. She graduated summa cum laude from college and went on to earn a combined law and business degree from UCLA. That remarkable story is the subject of a new book called Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time.
The worst of it began when she was coerced and taken in by a pimp called Icey. "He just basically told me their sad story," Phelps told weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
He needed help getting his car out of impound, Icey told her, but his girlfriend couldn't make the money because she was pregnant. So Phelps agreed. "It was supposed to be just one night, and it turned into 10 horrible days."
She said grown men didn't seem to be put off by the fact that she was just 12 years old. "The thing is, it was normal to them, and it seemed normal to all these people that were on the streets," she said. "They didn't care about my age. All they cared about was that they were buying — buying time with me to do whatever they wanted."
Phelps only escaped the situation when she was in a car with Icey and they were pulled over. Icey gave a fake name, but the fake name had a warrant. The police arrested Phelps as well. "I was put in the back of a police car ... and he sat in one police car right next to me. And I felt like I was a criminal just as much as he was."
Her life wouldn't turn around for another few years yet. After she returned home, she tried to go back to high school, but soon dropped out again. "I was trying to make sense of my life," she said, "and became involved with more gangs and different types of crime, not just shoplifting. So the next year was just basically spiraling downward. Nobody believed me, what had happened on to me [on] the streets." Another low point came when she and a few friends were arrested for joyriding in a stolen car.
Then, Phelps had her lucky moment. For the joyriding incident, she received a six-month sentence to a juvenile hall, where she was sent to school.
"For the very first time, my counselors were consistent, and I was able to get into therapy, go into family therapy, group therapy, with other little girls who had similar experiences, and just receive help for what had happened."
After finishing her sentence, Phelps went on to graduate from high school on time and graduate summa cum laude from Fresno State University. When she first arrived to UCLA for law and business school, one of her fellow students was a filmmaker named David Sauvage.
He was interested in filming a documentary, and when Phelps briefly suggested herself as a subject, Sauvage off-handedly replied, "Well, unless you were a child prostitute, it's all been told before."
"When he said that I just, I just was silent because I'd never considered myself a prostitute," Phelps recalled. "I knew what had happened to me, I'd been kidnapped by a pimp and I had been forced into prostitution and I knew the other things that had happened. But I'd never considered myself a child prostitute."
Sauvage indeed made a documentary about Phelps, the 2008 film Carissa.
Since completing her degrees, Phelps has committed herself to working with teenagers with the very kind of troubles she used to have. "I think that I'm supposed to bring this message and I really do feel like I was just a visitor in that life, in that time, to bring out the voice of kids who have been voiceless."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. When Carissa Phelps was just 12 years old, she dropped out of middle school in the small town of Coalinga, California. Her home life was dysfunctional, and soon, she began to run away, sometimes for weeks at a time.
CARISSA PHELPS: When you go out on the streets, it's very exhilarating. It felt like a great high. And then all of a sudden, you realize you have to have a place to sleep. And at first, it was like we would sleep in community hospital lobby or someplace that could be open for 24 hours, somewhere we could just curl up and be warm for a little while, just to make it through those tough hours in the night. And then when the sun would come up again, we were walking the streets.
RAZ: Today, Carissa Phelps is a success story. She eventually earned double degree in business at law in UCLA. But for a period of time in her childhood, she was forced into prostitution. She tells that story in her new book. It's called "Runaway Girl." And what happened began when she was coerced and then taken in by a pimp named Icey.
PHELPS: He just basically told me their sad story about how they needed money to get a car out of impound and that his current girlfriend couldn't make the money because she was pregnant and that I could really help them a lot, he said, if I could go out onto the street. So he tried to make me feel like I was contributing something, that I would be helping them. And so it was supposed to just be one night, and it turned into 10 horrible days.
RAZ: You were just 12 years old.
RAZ: And there were grown men who...
PHELPS: Yes, yeah. The thing is it was normal to them, and it seemed normal to all these people that were on the streets. They didn't care about my age. All they cared about was that they were buying time with me to do whatever they wanted. And for Icey, I think he wanted to feel that control. He definitely wanted to feel like he owned me, that I belonged to him. And it gave him this sense of power and control over me.
RAZ: How did you get out of that situation?
PHELPS: We were pulled over by a police officer, and I was arrested. I was put in back of a police car. And he was also arrested because he had given a name, a false name but that had a warrant. And he sat in one police car right next to me, and I felt like I was a criminal as much as he was.
RAZ: Even though you were his victim.
RAZ: How did you eventually get out? I mean, you eventually went and got a business degree and a law degree at UCLA, and now, you're a lawyer and an advocate. I mean, how did you get from that point and that police car to where you are now?
PHELPS: Well, it was a journey. The next year was really bad. I just got into worse and worse crime. I was trying to make sense of my life and became involved with more gangs and with different types of crimes, not just shoplifting. So the next year was just basically spiraling downward. Nobody believed me, what had happened to me on the streets. It got really, really bad until I received a six-month sentence in juvenile hall.
And just by chance, I was one of four girls sentenced to a boys' program - a school for boys - that was in our juvenile hall facility for the very first time. My counselors were consistent. I was able to get into therapy, go into family therapy, group therapy with other little girls who had similar experiences and just receive help for what had happened. But I also only went forward with all that help because I met a counselor while I was in there.
RAZ: This is Ron Jenkins.
PHELPS: Ron Jenkins, yes.
RAZ: Who recognized your intelligence and your potential.
PHELPS: He did, way before I did. He definitely did.
RAZ: When you are in graduate school at UCLA, you had a friend there, David Savage, and he was a filmmaker. And you had approached him about making a documentary about your life. He said - and you write this in the book - he said offhandedly, well, unless you're a child prostitute, it's all been told before.
PHELPS: Yeah. That gives me chills still. When he said that, I just was silent, because I had never considered myself a prostitute. I knew what had happened to me. I had been kidnapped by a pimp, and I had been forced into prostitution. But I never considered myself, you know, a child prostitute. I don't even think that that makes any sense to call a child a prostitute. But I understood what he was getting at.
So unless I had been sexually exploited, it had all been told before. And I chose, after a couple of days, to tell him more of the story and tell him why I wanted to go back to those streets with a camera.
RAZ: It's estimated there are as many as - possibly more - 300,000 children who are forced into prostitution in this country, which is an unbelievable statistic when you think about it. And you essentially have devoted your life to both eradicating it and helping people understand what this is about.
PHELPS: Yeah. And I've come to realize that all over the world, kids that - especially the runaway and delinquent kids that end up on the street end up being just consumed by people that are exploiting them. And so I work directly with youth and try to offer them some hope, hopefully get them into therapy and process a lot of the stuff that's happened to them.
RAZ: You could easily have fallen through the cracks, even after you were sent to juvenile detention. The unlikely scenario that you would eventually get a dual degree in business and law from UCLA is real. I mean, that was not supposed to happen to you.
PHELPS: No. And that's why I just feel so blessed and also responsible about what I do next and how I leave this world. You know, I think that I'm supposed to bring this message. And I really do feel like I was just a visitor in that life, in that time to bring out the voice of kids that have been voiceless.
RAZ: Carissa Phelps' new book is called "Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets One Helping Hand at a Time." Carissa, thank you so much.
PHELPS: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.