Interview with Carissa Phelps; Author & CEO of Runaway Girl, FPC

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

Carissa Phelps

RICHMOND, VA, February 26, 2013 — Early one bright, hot August morning, during the first week of second grade, my stepfather picked me up and tossed me out the front door.  I hit the ground hard, instinctively protecting my face, breaking my fall with my hand.

As I struggled to catch my breath, I realized two things: I was hurt, and the kids on the school bus out in front of my house were watching me.  All those eyes were aimed right at me.

I looked at my mother, standing slightly behind my stepfather.  She just stared calmly, her arms crossed over her pregnant belly.  She said nothing, did not move, acting as though nothing had happened.

“Mom?” I said, waiting for the comfort and dust-me-off that didn’t come.

“Get up and go to school!” Steve barked.  I got the message: This was all my fault.  I had it coming.  I should not have caused problems.  “Get up!”

I staggered to my feet and made my way to the bus.  As the bus door wheezed shut, I saw Marcy, a girl who lived up the street, standing in the aisle waiting for me.  She was one of those junior-high girls a second grader dreams of becoming.  Almost a teenager, she wore makeup, had a cool backpack, and didn’t talk to me like I was a stupid little kid.  Marcy led me into the empty seat beside her while I squinched my face tight, determined not to cry.  To show weakness would have been like putting a target on my back.  I was concentrating so fiercely on toughening it out that Marcy noticed before I did that my hand was bloody.

Thus begins Runaway Girl, a recently-released memoir by Carissa Phelps, survivor-turned-activist for homeless and runaway youth.  Carissa is enormously passionate about helping others.  From visiting youth detention facilities to mentoring adult survivors towards personal success, Carissa is a pivotal member of the movement to support homeless and runaway youth and to educate and advocate against child sex trafficking in America.

At 13 years old Carissa dropped out of school, believing she had only two options available to her: an early death or prison. Thanks to the persistence of a counselor and a math teacher in juvenile hall, Carissa changed her mind about what her future might hold. A decade later, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in mathematics from California State University (CSU) Fresno.  After teaching high school math for one year, Carissa went on to pursue her dream of becoming an advocate for the rights of others.  In 2007, she earned a juris doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law, as well as an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

In 2008, David Sauvage, an MBA classmate, narrated Carissa’s amazing “juvy-to-justice” story in an award-winning 23-minute documentary entitled, Carissa.  The film continues to inspire troubled youth and their advocates to look for the potential in themselves and others. Carissa’s passion, seen both in the film and in real life, brings hope to survivors. What began as a platform to share one inspiring story has grown into a movement toward embracing an often invisible group in society — runaway and homeless youth.

In 2012, Carissa Phelps added chief executive officer (CEO) of Runaway Girl, FPC to her list of titles, which includes attorney, crisis counselor, mentor, and motivational speaker.  Runaway Girl, FPC is a flexible purpose corporation based in California.

“Runaway Girl, FPC is a hybrid company,” Carissa explained, “It is a for-profit with the charitable purpose of creating employment opportunities for runaways, former runaways, and survivors.  We’re partnering with local survivors to provide them with [opportunities to take] their experience, knowledge, and networks and put them to the best use in their communit[ies]…

“We have come to a point in the survivor movement when we need each other more than ever,” Carissa said, encouraging other survivors to join Runaway Girl, FPC, “We need to support one another in order to take hold of this awesome opportunity in front of us to capture the hearts, minds, and spirits of often burnt out, frustrated, and overworked systems.  We’re here to make systems run more efficiently by equipping community members with the tools necessary to make an impact, not just in the life of one, but in the lives of many.”

Runaway Girl, FPC offers two workshops:

CPR: Community Protocol for Response (1-day workshop)

The 1-day CPR workshop is designed for all members of a community.  This training covers the basics (or A-B-Cs) of commercial sexual exploitation of children: Awareness, Belief, and Capacity.

EMT: Empowerment Model Training (2-day workshop)

The 2-day training goes a step further and is intended for anyone in regular contact with youth who are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.

“Both the 1-day CPR and the 2-day EMT [trainings] are offered exclusively by Runaway Girl, FPC trainers,” Carissa stated, “The trainings are interactive; engaging; and, most importantly, will lead to community action.  Runaway Girl, FPC works with local and regional trainers to bring the most relevant information to every community, and [to] connect survivors who are actively working in the movement with networks that will strengthen, support, and improve their local work.”

To learn more or to schedule a training, please visit or contact

Carissa’s journey includes letting go of a history of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and trauma. By sharing her own story of healing and reconciliation, she inspires others to do the same.  I continue to be inspired by Carissa Phelps, a mentor and personal friend.  If you are an advocate, parent, teacher, or caring professional for troubled youth, I encourage you to share her story with those kids in your lives.

Order your copy of Runaway Girl today from Amazon or Barnes and Noble!

7 Layers Captive: A new performance by survivor Stacy Jewell Lewis

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

7 Layers Captive


WASHINGTON, D.C., February 17, 2013 – Playwright, poet, and human trafficking survivor-activist, Stacy Jewell Lewis, is offering a brand-new performance entitled “7 Layers Captive” this week in Washington, D.C.

According to Stacy’s website, 7 Layers Captive is a “descriptive real life story about Stacy’s horrific experience in what she and other experts call ‘The Life.’ Through poetry, music and powerful storytelling, Stacy describes the fear, shame and eventual acceptance that plagued and kept her locked in the chains of her [captor’s] manipulative seduction.”

7 Layers Captive offers explanation to those hard-to-explain questions,” Stacy stated, “Questions like ‘Why didn’t you run?’ and ‘Didn’t you have a choice?’”

Survivors like Stacy and I know all too well how difficult these questions are to answer in just a few statements. It takes time to explain the many layers of reasoning behind our actions or lack of actions. As a survivor myself, I am currently writing a book to help answer these questions to my own story.  Stacy, an artist and poet, is using performance to narrate these answers to her personal story, a story which she shared in a previous article:

“When I was child, I loved to act,” Stacy said, “From movies to plays, I loved to watch the dramatic arts.”

Her first play in middle school sparked her dreams to act. Raised in the D.C. metropolitan area from age five, Stacy’s dreams to become an actress were cut short at the age of 19. After accepting a ride from an elderly man in the neighborhood, Stacy was held at gunpoint. She explained how the man’s gentle and grandpa-like personality suddenly changed to a violent nature. Stacy learned that the man had been paid by a trafficker to abduct her.

In an interview with KSAT in San Antonio, TX, Stacy stated, “They had followed me for quite some time and knew my pattern so they knew where I lived and threatened my family if I did not go … When I was told they knew what street I lived on and [that I] had a child, it felt more real to me than ever before.”

Stacy said she spent the following two years working for a man who treated her as a slave.

“Manipulation and physical abuse kept me at his beck and call,” Stacy said, “until one day I decided I couldn’t take anymore.”

Just before her 21st birthday, Stacy escaped “The Life.”

“It took me ten years,” Stacy said, “ten years after leaving the life to realize and understand that I had been a victim of sex trafficking.”

Stacy turned this realization into a dramatization called “10 Years and 1 Day.” This spoken word performance includes her testimony of personal torments and her witness to child victims of sex trafficking. Stacy not only captivated audiences with this performance in Washington D.C. last year, but she inspired them.

“The performing arts can be a powerful tool in creating public awareness,” Stacy said, “bold words and heart-wrenching performances can certainly ignite a call to action.”

“While it took ten years to fully understand that I was a victim, it only took me one day to believe in the sun,” stated Stacy in an interview with Fox 13 News in Salt Lake City, UT, “God was in the light all along [and] I escaped my prison while all the vampires were asleep.”

Book your ticket for Stacy’s play, “7 Layers Captive,” this Thursday night, February21st at 7:45 pm, or this Saturday night, February 23rd at 8pm, located at The Fridge in Washington D.C. Space is limited. Order your tickets here and don’t miss this “remarkable depiction of Stacy’s personal journey through the dark world of sex trafficking and street prostitution.”

To request Stacy as a performer or motivational speaker at your next event, please visit


Human Trafficking: Survivors offer tips to the Dept of Transportation

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times Communities

RICHMOND, VA, February 10, 2013 – Last October, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, and Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman announced a partnership among the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and Amtrak to combat human trafficking. Under this partnership, DHS and DOT would work with Amtrak to train over 8,000 frontline transportation employees and Amtrak Police Department officers to identify and recognize indicators of human trafficking, as well as how to report suspected cases of human trafficking.

DOT announced that this partnership is also part of their efforts to raise awareness about the issue and to ensure that the U.S. transportation system is not being exploited for human trafficking. The DOT has stated that, under the leadership of Secretary Ray LaHood, nearly all Department of Transportation employees have completed an anti-human trafficking training that covers common signs of trafficking and how to report it. DOT contractor employees are expected to begin the training soon.

“We cannot let the American transportation system be an enabler in these criminal acts,” stated Secretary LaHood. “In addition to…partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Amtrak, we are working with all modes of transportation to help stop the flow of human trafficking. Raising awareness can save lives, and we all have a responsibility to keep an eye out for these activities.”

DOT recognized the need for survivor input on this process, and for that, I commend them. Without survivor input, any educational data or training program regarding human trafficking is missing a very important perspective. As stated by U.N. Ambassador Mira Sorvino in a recent speech at the National Conference of State Legislatures, “no victim’s advocate or policy maker is as good as a survivor.”

My traffickers (a man and a woman) used taxis to transport me back and forth between their motel room, the local malls, and the streets of Atlantic City. I was clearly young and very quiet. There was an obvious age difference between us- I was 14, and they appeared to be in their 20s or 30s – and we did not appear to be a family.

As a survivor, I would like to offer the following warning signs for taxi drivers:

• Watch for victims of any kind of abuse or exploitation. Victims may appear to be young, confused, inexperienced, withdrawn, or afraid of their older (or generally more authoritative) companions. Be aware and report anything suspicious.

• Watch for children or teens who are dressed maturely and traveling alone or with older companions, especially late at night or early morning, in unsafe areas or places known for prostitution, and / or if the child or teen appears to be lost or inexperienced with using taxis.

• If an adult is instructing a child or teen about sex or prostitution practices, including handing the child or teen prophylactics, report it immediately.

• If a man or woman appears to be hiding a child or teenage companion within the taxi (i.e. pushing the child or teen to the floor or below the level of the window), then report it. They may be attempting to hide the child from the police.

As each survivor’s experience is unique and important, I reached out to others to share tips or portions of their stories as it relates to transportation:

– “Truck stops and adjacent hotels are huge for trafficking of minors. They have trucks set up on lots for prostitution-type setups; truckers are the main target for clients. Taxi [drivers should be on the lookout] for little girls dressed up in big-girl clothes [who are out] late at night [traveling] to and from hotels… with someone else paying the cab fare. Bus stops- [drivers and other personnel should be on the lookout for] young girls being taken to and from or being directed to go to a stop [for] someone [who] will meet them there…

“Toll plaza [workers] need more awareness of signs to look for, like if a child is disheveled, [or appears to be] abused, [or is wearing] inappropriate clothing for the weather… Bathroom attendants and toll clerks can [be informed] to spot [signs,] or posters can be hung up [with signs of what] to look for.” -Katarina Rosenblatt, LLM, Founder of There is Hope for Me

– “I was sent by my trafficker across the U.S. border into Canada, utilizing the bus. I appeared to be traveling alone. Upon my return to the U.S., the Customs Agent, who reviewed my paperwork, looked at me with disgust and told me to ‘just go.’ My face was swollen and covered in bruises after having spent days in the hospital for a very severe beating.” - Jes Richardson, President of Freedom’s Breath

If properly informed, this Customs Agent could have recognized and reported potential trafficking.

–  “Work vans are almost synonymous with normal labor; however, in my case it [was] what my trafficker and his network of pedophiles used to transport me and other children around town and to different cities in the U.S. to be sold for sexual exploitation. We were dehumanized and terrified into submission and, subsequently, silence. Traffickers can be stopped in their tracks and lives can be saved. Tips, ideas on how to educate different departments of transportation, and coming up with ways of implementing change can happen by involving survivors in the DOT process of helping to end human trafficking.” -Margeaux, Artist and Advocate

- “My trafficker, who was my father, took me to truck stops very late at night in either a pickup truck, which sometimes had a camper attached, or a van. He used CB radios to ‘advertise’ my availability and to communicate when we would be arriving. We looked like a ‘typical’ father and young daughter traveling. I was terrified and often drugged, which may have [given the appearance] I had just woken up. My father also used the same van to meet groups of truckers at truck stops and then transport groups of truckers to and from our house for parties where I was commercially sexually exploited. I urge [the DOT] to [connect] with Truckers Against Trafficking [as] they do incredible work with educating truckers about what to look for on the roads and instructing them on how to identify trafficking.” -Anonymous –

While difficult to hear, these stories and tips are paramount to an effective program geared to recognize signs of human trafficking. Tactics used by traffickers are known most well by those who endured them. I encourage DOT and collaborators to reach out to Jes Richardson, to Katarina Rosenblatt, and to other survivors of both labor and sex trafficking.

If you are a survivor of human trafficking and would like to offer advice for the DOT program, please contact