Public Safety

A World in Common

Carissa Phelps still remembers sleeping on a plastic pillow and mat, under a scratchy wool blanket after arriving at juvenile hall.

“I think everybody was allergic” to those blankets, Phelps told a group of young female detainees at Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility recently.

Now a successful businesswoman, attorney and author, Phelps landed in a Fresno County juvenile hall at age 12, she told a dozen young women in Kearny Mesa’s Youthful Offender Unit (YOU). Phelps spoke to the group as part of a visit coordinated and sponsored by the San Diego County Office of Education in early February. The girls’ YOU is made up of young women who have committed serious offenses or have been on probation or in juvenile hall before, but continued to offend.

Phelps told them she had been abused and forced to work as a prostitute. She was raped, and became homeless.

“I was really good at running from the cops,” she said. “I was really good at hiding. I was really good at jumping fences, and getting away in the little nooks and crannies. I could almost get away from anything.”

As part of her visit, Phelps played for the detainees an award-winning short documentary called “CARISSA” which tells her compelling turnaround story. Phelps wrote a book released last year called “Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time.” She also founded a San Luis Obispo-based company under the same name which aims to improve the lives of runaways and former runaways. She said she and her staff travel around the country training and educating groups of teachers, social workers, attorneys and others on the problems youth like her are facing.

“These kids need someone to hear them,” Phelps said in an interview. “They don’t even know it’s OK to talk. They’ve gotten the message that nobody wants to hear them.”

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Mindy McCartney, a Supervising Probation Officer in the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, said it really helps the detainees to hear from survivors of trafficking who have been successful. She sees many victims of it.

Phelps told the group of young women that her life began to change after a juvenile hall counselor expressed interest in her.

“He was the first person in a very long time to just ask me what happened on the streets,” she said. “And a lot happened on the streets.”

She said her life didn’t immediately get better. There were setbacks. But she eventually found something she was good at: math. There was a certain consistency in it.

Phelps had missed seventh, eighth and nine grades, but managed to graduate from high school. She started working and taking classes at a community college.

She found her way into a bad relationship, with a boyfriend who held a gun to her head, but got out of it.

“I had to get out of that abusive relationship,” she said. “I had to find my own way, I had to pay my own rent.”

She stayed in school and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in mathematics from Fresno State University. After teaching math for a year, Phelps pursued her dream of becoming an advocate for the rights of others. In 2007, she earned combined law and business graduate degrees from UCLA.

Some detainees reacted strongly—and visibly–to Phelps’ story.

Tears rolled down the face of a young detainee, named Chantel, as she watched the documentary on Phelps. Later, the 17 year old said she was particularly touched hearing how Phelps had been trafficked but overcame it. Chantel said her own sister is a victim of human trafficking and that she knows other girls in juvenile hall who are too.

“You don’t really hear stories like this, of people who can overcome it,” Chantel said. “So for her to do what she does now, it’s awesome. It’s very rare. You can thank God because she’s one of the people who made it through.”

Chantel said she is in juvenile hall for robbery but hopes to become a medical assistant one day. She’s expected to be released this summer.

“I’ve made it this far and I just keep praying every day that I find strength and patience,” she said. “As long as I set short and long term goals for myself, I’ll make it.”

Another young detainee said she most related to Phelps’ history of running away. That’s something Francesca, 17, said she’s done a lot of too.

A former methamphetamine addict, Francesca said she was on the run for 10 months straight, much of it pregnant. She first landed in juvenile hall at age 12 too, she said, and has been in and out ever since.

“I never thought I was capable of being successful,” she said.

She does know how to draw, she told Phelps, who strongly encouraged her. Francesca said she now feels she has a reason to strive for success: her young child. She appreciated getting a visit from someone whose story she could relate to so easily.

“It was real,” she said.

For more information on Carissa Phelps and her story, visit her website at www.carissaphelps.com.

Michele Clock is a group communications officer with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact