KSBY Investigates: Sex Trafficking on the Central Coast - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

KSBY Investigates

KSBY Investigates: Sex Trafficking on the Central Coast

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The US Department of Homeland Security calls human trafficking one of the most heinous crimes they investigate. They also said human trafficking can be seen as modern-day slavery. In Part One of the series "Human Trafficking on the Central Coast", KSBY meets a local woman who was sold as a prostitute at the age of 12.

Carissa Phelps, who is now in her 30s, said she was trafficked in Fresno County, but said she was almost recruited to a prostitution sting in San Luis Obispo when she was 19, while attending Cuesta College. Phelps said, without a doubt, she believes human trafficking is happening in our community, and not enough is being done to stop it.

It all began when Phelps was 12. She grew up in the small town of Coalinga. She was abandoned by her mother and became homeless, left to fend for herself on the streets.

"I was vulnerable. Somebody knew it, and they took advantage of that situation," said Phelps.

She said her experience on the streets opened up her eyes to the fact that she was not the only child being taken advantage of.

Phelps said, "Within the first 24 to 48 hours, there's a high probability that someone will ask them for sex, in exchange for a place to stay, in exchange for food to eat."

Phelps highlights in her book, "Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time", the handful of sexual acts she was ordered to perform in her days of desperation. She said she was even forced to have sex with a friend's uncle, and was put out on the streets by a very violent, notorious trafficker for 10 days. Phelps also opened up in her book that she was raped.

"This is somebody saying, I'm gonna purchase you, as a 12 year old, right? I'm gonna buy you something. And then you're going to be mine. You belong to me, like you're gonna do what I want you to do," said Phelps.

Phelps told KSBY News that being pulled into human trafficking can happen anywhere, in any neighborhood, to anyone. However, after several stints in and out of group homes in Fresno County, Phelps met people who would help her get through the struggles. She met one man named Ron Jenkins. He was a man in her life that didn't hurt her like the others, he would come to help her. Jenkins, who was the chief counselor at C.K. Wakefield School, a rehabilitation program in Fresno. He became Phelps' mentor.

Phelps said, "There's been such a need for the survivor voice. There's been such a need for more programs and services and such a lack of awareness out there, so I've been really just pulled into this space that was void of any voice at all."

Phelps went on to earn her Juris Doctorate from UCLA School of Law and an MBA from UCLA Anderson. With those degrees and her voice, she said she thought she would take on injustice on a global scope, but quickly realized that human trafficking is equally an issue at a local level.

"It was happening here. So systematically, so frequently, and how it was being hidden," said Phelps.

She said it is now an issue that is in everyone's hands.

Phelps said, "It's about giving this to other community members and saying, 'Okay this is not just my responsibility as a survivor, this is our responsibility,' and ya, I'll be a part of it, but I'm not the central part of it. This a community response."

In 2012, Phelps, who is now a licensed attorney living in Shell Beach, founded Runaway Girl FPC, a flexible purpose corporation. It is aimed at helping survivors of human trafficking and providing them resources, networks, business, and local efforts to protect and care for survivors and victims within their own communities.In Part Two of the of the series "Sex Trafficking on the Central Coast", KSBY looks into what local law enforcement agencies define as human trafficking and they talk about what they are doing to combat the crime.

According to an anti-human trafficking consultant that KSBY spoke to, human trafficking, like prostitution, is happening everywhere, even in our backyards.

"Slavery still exists," said John Vanek, a retired San Jose Police Lieutenant who was the head of the Human Trafficking Task Force for the department.

Vanek said modern day slavery can be seen in different ways.

He said, "Human trafficking can also just be one individual being exploited by one person, perhaps as a domestic servant, or perhaps through the commercial sex trade."

So, where exactly on the Central Coast is sex trafficking occurring and in what forms? KSBY went to some local police agencies to find out.

"Here at the Santa Maria Police Department, we've been working for about a year now. I believe it was last October or November that we had a town hall meeting, and a lot of citizens from the north end, and business owners from the north end talked about the prostitution on the street level getting out of hand," said Santa Maria Police Detective Jason Zickuhr.

Zickhur said they are constantly getting complaints from their citizens about street prostitution.

He said, "The majority of the girls I'm talking to are coming from Fresno, probably followed closely by Bakersfield and then Stockton. I know a lot of the Stockton girls said they left the Stockton area because of the enforcement of prostitution there."

San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gesell said prostitution without a doubt is happening in his city as well, it just may not be as visible on the streets.

"What you're more likely to see are the Redbooks, the Craigslist, prostitution exchanges, where they're gonna meet clients and then move, so it's a smaller scale," said Gesell.

He said the department takes prostitution seriously, primarily because it's illegal, but also because there's a greater concern that some prostitutes could be controlled against their will.

Gesell said, "What percentage of those are actually considered individuals that are being trafficked, I think that's really difficult to ascertain."

"As law enforcement officers, we should always be looking out for every single victim," said Vanek.

But even Vanek, who led the Human Trafficking Task Force for San Jose PD for five years, said small agencies like Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo can't take on the fight alone.

Gesell agreed and said, "I think it's incumbent upon us as administrators in smaller cities and smaller police departments to A. maintain the awareness for our officers but B. certainly ensure that they get the training to recognize the signs of human trafficking and take enforcement action."

No law enforcement agencies on the Central Coast have a human trafficking task force. Most said they don't need one. Vanek said there is still a long road ahead for law enforcement agencies in the state. He said it could take years before a solid infrastructure is in place to best combat modern-day slavery.

In November 2012, California voters passed Proposition 35, which will increase prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions. Vanek said law enforcement officers in the state will also be required to receive human trafficking awareness training by mid-2014. Prop 35 will also require convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders and registered sex offenders will have to disclose internet activities and identities.

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