In 2020, Tammy Michelson, a Vancouver Police Department crime analyst, investigated what she describes as the “most egregious case” of child sexual exploitation in the past several years.
The case involved 56-year-old Julius Owolabi, a Vancouver man who was sentenced to 7½ years in prison after sexually exploiting about a dozen teen girls, including paying some for sex.
Michelson estimated that Owolabi had contact with at least 31 underage girls. “I think that I count six where we can say we really felt strongly that there was something of value exchanged for the contact,” Michelson said.
Exchanging sex for “something of value” fits the legal definition of child sex trafficking. But when Owolabi pleaded guilty last summer, trafficking wasn’t part of his conviction.
“He ended up not getting any trafficking charges whatsoever,” Michelson said. “He did plead to rape of a child. But there was no trafficking.”
Across Washington, service providers and survivors say sex trafficking remains a vastly underreported crime. When it is reported, judicial and legislative challenges make it difficult to convict people of it — even when strong evidence exists.
The Vancouver Police Department had 14 reported human trafficking offenses from 2020 through 2022, according to VPD data. Of these, only three led to an arrest, and only one resulted in a trafficking conviction.
Michelson, a member of Clark County’s Human Trafficking Task Force, said these numbers are “absolutely not” a reflection of the amount of trafficking in the area.
People buy and sell sex every day in Clark County, said Robin Miller, a case manager for Janus Youth Programs, which provides outreach services and case management to the county’s youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation of children. It happens within families, in schools, on the streets, at the mall, in churches and — now, most commonly — online, Miller said.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 337 trafficking victims in Washington in 2021. Studies show that women and girls of color and LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be trafficked than other demographic groups.
Clark County is no exception. Miller said her caseload over the past six years has been disproportionately made up of Black and brown girls.
Traffickers often target people in vulnerable situations, whether they are unhoused, struggling with addiction, in state care or otherwise lacking a support system, according to Alaire de Salvo, Janus Youth shelter and outreach director.
“Any time you have any social conditions that lead to desperation, particularly financial desperation, you’re going to have trafficking. Period,” de Salvo said.
‘Why don’t you leave?’
Despite law enforcement and service providers’ awareness of the issue, sex trafficking continues throughout the county, often without consequence to buyers.
The court system’s reliance on victim testimony is a major roadblock in convicting traffickers, according to Michelson. “Going to trial and expecting these young victims to show up and to put themselves on the line and their names on the line is one of the most difficult things to do in these cases,” she said.
Apart from this judicial challenge, law enforcement can’t address an issue if it’s not reported. When it comes to trafficking, there are various, complex reasons why victims choose not to go to the police.
One reason is that many young victims don’t realize they’ve been coerced into trafficking, according to de Salvo.
“There’s very much a sense of having chosen whatever actions have unfolded,” de Salvo said. “It can take a long time for a person to come to the understanding of how limited their choices were, and how manipulation was involved in the direction of the choices that they made.”
Miller, a survivor of trafficking in the Portland metro area in the 1990s, understands this barrier firsthand.
“Sometimes even with no choice, no way around it, you are going to be victimized and trafficked,” Miller said. “Holding on to the idea that maybe you did choose it is the only power that you can carry.”
When Miller met her trafficker at age 21, she had fallen into the same thought patterns that she now sees her clients fall into. “I was so vulnerable. My self-worth was like nothing. And I bought into it,” she said.
When people do realize they’ve been victimized, the shame and stigma around commercial sexual exploitation can be terrifying to overcome.
“Being willing to kind of put themselves out there in this really vulnerable way and say, ‘This happened to me and I need help,’ is really difficult. And the response that they get might be supportive, but it might not be, depending on who they decide to open up to,” de Salvo said.
Miller also noted that there’s a code of silence when you’re in “the life” or “the game” — terms for the subculture of prostitution. Breaking that silence can be dangerous.
“Once you are out there in that game, it’s kind of like, ‘Why don’t you leave?’” Miller said. “It’s just easier to stay in the dysfunction of it all because you kind of understand what is likely to happen — you’re gonna get beat up, you’re gonna be raped, you’re gonna be all of these things, but you know it. And you don’t know on the other side.”
From law enforcement’s perspective, Michelson thinks more sting operations designed to catch buyers could go a long way, as this takes some pressure off victims to report the crime.
“In terms of law enforcement resources, we could do a lot more in Clark County to address demand,” Michelson said. “Because right now, what is the message that is being sent? That we’re not going to pay attention to this.”
Supports and solutions
When Miller was in the life, she had her own reason for not reporting her trafficker: “I loved him,” she said. She left her pimp several times, but always went back.
Until finally, after six years, she didn’t go back.
The key factor that enabled her to leave for good was the community she found at an Oxford House, she said. “I had community, I had support, I had family. … I found my place and was able to stay out of it.”
Washington is on its way to providing more support for trafficking victims and survivors. House Bill 1089, currently being considered by the Legislature, would create a network of healing, support and transition services for adults who have been sex trafficked.
This legislation aligns with what Jeri Moomaw, founder and executive director of Indigenous- and survivor-led Washington nonprofit Innovations Human Trafficking Collaborative, calls an “equality model.”
“The equality model is where the person that is engaged in any type of sex work (or) prostitution will be completely decriminalized, and that they will be wrapped around with multidisciplinary team support,” Moomaw said.
Moomaw is against full decriminalization of the sex trade, saying it would make the area attractive to traffickers. She argues that traffickers and buyers need to be held criminally accountable, while those who are exploited should not be criminalized.
Not all prostitution is trafficking, Moomaw added. “However, even the small segment of those freely in prostitution say that poverty and lack of options had led them to where they are. We need options.”
Moomaw, a Native woman, is a survivor of child trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children. After getting away from her trafficker, she found herself unequipped to navigate life, made more difficult by her lack of understanding of the commercial sexual exploitation of children and the challenges of being seen as a criminal. For the next decade, she struggled with no options and no support, she said.
“There were no services. They patted me on the back, they said ‘Go forward, have a great life.’ I was constitutionally not able to. I found myself in the situation of no options and returned to the commercial sex industry,” Moomaw said.
In 2020, Washington passed a “safe harbor” bill to better support child survivors of commercial sexual exploitation. The legislation prohibits anyone under 18 from being charged with the crime of prostitution, effective Jan. 1, 2024. It also requires state funding for two treatment programs for commercially sexually exploited youth, one on each side of the Cascade Mountains.
On the east side of the Cascades in Spokane, Daybreak Youth Services opened a Restorative Receiving Center in May 2022 for youth ages 12-17 who have been sex trafficked, the first program of its kind in the nation. Since opening, the program has served 16 kids and received two referrals from Clark County.
“Instead of going to jail and booked for prostitution, they come to the receiving center,” said Sarah Spier, Daybreak’s director of external relations.
The center provides a mental health and substance use disorder assessment in the first 72 hours, and 30 days of trauma-focused stabilization and therapy. “Having this program be able to be in a residential inpatient facility at first where we can stabilize them is a game changer,” Spier said.
On the west side of the Cascades, however, no organization has stepped up to create a treatment program.
“Nobody has applied for the west side of the mountains, and we are desperate, because these kids are being turned loose and not offered the services that they need,” Moomaw said.
Moomaw aims to empower survivors by continuing to support them through the judicial process and beyond.
“We are working diligently to not have the prosecution and the case be on the weight of an extremely scared and traumatized victim. It is not working,” Moomaw said. “If we support them with services, from the arrest of their offender all the way to the trial or whatever else, we are going to get convictions.”
Convictions, however, are not her organization’s goal — the goal is to give survivors agency, according to Moomaw.
“We pride ourselves on only supporting the survivor wishes. This can or cannot include prosecution of their traffickers,” she said. “We support them where they are at and walk with them on their healing journeys.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.