Everett mother shares tragic loss to fight sex trafficking

EVERETT — She’s been told she’s living with ambiguous grief.

That seems a perfect description to Sarah Collins, who has been stuck in limbo for the past three years.

She doesn’t know what happened to her daughter, who was so young she should have been enjoying her high school prom. Instead, her girl became a pawn caught in the brutal world of sex trafficking.

“There is no end to it,” said Collins, an articulate genetics researcher whose eyes can’t hide her sadness. “You always want to believe she is still alive. There are times you give up hope. It’s a back-and-forth thing.”

Kelsey Collins had turned 18 shortly before she left their south Everett condominium to catch a bus the day before Mother’s Day in 2009.

Kelsey Collins was off to visit her boyfriend the day. She didn’t take anything with her. She never came home.

Her boyfriend said she never arrived.

For weeks, her daughter’s cell phone would ring and go directly to voice mail as though it had been shut off.

Police suspect her disappearance is related to the dangerous double life the troubled teen had lived and vowed to leave.

Kelsey Collins was lured into prostitution when she was 16. Her testimony before a grand jury led to a sex trafficking indictment against a man who allegedly drove her from Seattle to Portland to peddle sex, even though she was a minor. Kelsey Collins had convinced her mom she was going to Olympia for the weekend to hang out with a friend.

When Kelsey Collins vanished, a federal case against her alleged former pimp fell apart before it got to trial.

Even so, the man she testified against was later convicted of sex trafficking charges involving a 15-year-old girl. Donnico T. Johnson was sentenced to nearly 15 years in federal prison.

These days, Sarah Collins talks to different groups about the largely invisible industry of sex trafficking that ensnares thousands of American teens each year. She’s planning to do so as a member of a Snohomish County League of Women Voters panel discussion scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Rosehill Community Center, 304 Lincoln Way, Mukilteo.

Sarah Collins senses that many people assume such an insidious trade couldn’t infiltrate their community. She wants them to know it can and does.

“I am a real person,” she said. “I lost my daughter.”

Some teen sex trafficking victims end up in counseling at the Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse in Everett.

“Many of them look like every-day teenagers, and come from various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds,” said Azra Grudic, who works with victims through the intervention center.

Local experts say the prevalence of the problem is difficult to quantify, but, make no mistake, it is real.

“The biggest challenge continues to be raising awareness that this is happening in our community and to our children on a daily basis,” Grudic said.

Paula Newman-Skomski is a nurse practitioner and forensic nurse examiner at the center who encounters teens caught in the sex industry.

“They are being trafficked up and down the I-5 corridor,” she said.

Sarah Collins fears her daughter might be dead or selling herself in “some place so awful you can’t think about it.”

Sometimes, she dreams her daughter is found, is brought home and is OK.

It’s a pleasant dream but one she concedes is unlikely.

Doug Justus is a retired detective sergeant with the Portland Police Department. He was leading a human trafficking unit when a police report about Kelsey Collins landed on his desk.

He got to know the teen and her mom.

The case still costs him sleep.

“When you broke down all of her toughness, she was just a kid, just a normal kid who unfortunately was involved in some stuff that’s hard to even talk about,” Justus said.

Kelsey Collins was an easy target for sex traffickers, he said.

“They pick these kids who are easy to manipulate,” Justus said. “They tend to have low self-esteem, do poorly in school and are looking for a father figure. They play it like a professional psychiatrist.”

Kelsey Collins had a tough childhood beginning with birth defects that required surgeries.

Her stepfather was abusive and, by age 5, as a result of his abuse, she began to have seizures at night, her mom said.

One night, Sarah Collins gathered her children and took them away. She left everything behind. All she could think about was finding a safe place for her children.

They moved from the Midwest to Washington. The family changed their names and Social Security numbers.

Years later, her former husband was convicted of abusing two of Collins’ children during the years they lived together in the late 1990s. The man now is serving a 20-year sentence in prison, according to Michigan Department of Corrections records.

Kelsey Collins also had a learning disability. By her sophomore year, she was reading at only a fifth-grade level and had the math skills of a third-grader.

Sarah Collins worked long hours in the research lab to provide for her children.

Her daughter grew frustrated with school and began skipping classes. She later was arrested for theft and prostitution.

For all her daughter’s troubles, Sarah Collins continued to see the good in her.

“She had this amazing capacity for empathy,” she said.

When elderly neighbors needed help, Kelsey Collins would show up unprompted to lend a hand.

The day before she disappeared, Kelsey Collins helped her mom bring in the spring flowers — pansies, impatiens and snapdragons — for planting. That afternoon, as her mom took a nap, Kelsey helped plan Mother’s Day.

The following morning, Sarah Collins wasn’t celebrating. She was worrying about her missing daughter.

“I just had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she said.

Since then, Sarah Collins has had many conversations with other moms of missing children in Washington, Oregon and Canada.

They tell similar stories. Often, their children lived at home and attended school while carrying on a second life in the sex trade.

Justus also hears the heart-breaking tales.

“It’s happening, but people bury their head in the sand and say, ‘This won’t happen here,’” he said.

Last month, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed several bills that add teeth to state laws aimed at preventing sex trafficking. Senate Bill 6251, for instance, bans advertising of escort services that exploit children and teens. Publishers of such material can now face felony prosecution.

Sarah Collins applauds the new laws.

She just hopes focus isn’t lost on those who have already disappeared.

“What have you done to find all these missing girls?” she asked. “Some we know are involved and others are suspected to be involved, but they are forgotten. The only people who remember them are their families and the people who knew them.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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