TEXAS (ABC Big 2/FOX 24 News) – The Texas Center for the Missing says in 2020, there were more than 37 thousand reports of children missing in our state. Each missing child could fill Ratliff Stadium’s seats more than two times. Experts say these cases may not be something we talk about every day, but it’s an issue we should all be familiar with.
“It’s a big issue, but what is interesting about it is that if it can be a situation where one person can make a difference, possibly a life and death difference, when they open their eyes and open their ears and look and see, it’s basically see something, say something,” says Texas Center for the Missing CEO Beth Alberts.
Some cases never get an answer, but the CEO of the Texas Center for the Missing says that kids are usually found.
“98% of missing children are located, thank goodness, safe and alive. Unfortunately there are children that are located deceased, and there are more children that are never located,” says Alberts.
But why do children go missing?
“Long ago, we all had that sort of picture of a guy in a rain coat sitting on a park bench waiting for kids to come by, and that was certainly the reality at that time,” says Alberts.
We learn about “stranger danger” growing up, but that’s not the reason for most child disappearances. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says endangered runaways are about 91 percent of their cases.
“ You really have to look at the circumstances that lead to their disappearance. At the National Center, one of the largest populations of children who go missing are our runaway category child, who run away from a safe environment, or what we perceive as a safe environment,” says NCMEC Missing Children VP John Bischoff.
NCMEC Missing Persons Cases (2020)
- Endangered runaways: 91%
- Family abductions: 5 %
- Non-family abductions: less than 1 %
- Critically missing young adults: 3 %
- Other reasons: less than 1 %
“If you see something that seems odd, say something. We will often remind the public that missing children are often missing in plain sight. They may be living down the street from someone. They may have been abducted from family members. However a child went missing, we’re likely to encounter missing children in our daily lives, and that’s why it’s important to be aware,” says Bischoff.
At best, children run away and come back home. At worst, the children could be hurt, traumatized, trafficked, or killed.
“ You really have to look at the circumstances that lead to their disappearance. At the National Center, one of the largest populations of children who go missing are our runaway category child, who run away from a safe environment or what we perceive as a safe environment,” says Bischoff.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says 91% of their cases across the U.S. involved endangered runaways. These kids are listed as “endangered” because even if they left on their own, they still face risks.
“More than likely, they’re going to experience some type of trauma when they were on their own. The trauma of not knowing if they’re going to get a meal that day, not knowing if they’re going to have a shelter at night. High risk can be taken advantage of, whether financially taken advantage of, physically, or sexually taken advantage of,” says Centers for Children and Families Clinical Director Marc McQueen.
The reasons why children might leave their homes are endless.
“For their disappearances are they running from something? Are they running to something? Are they coerced?,” asks Bischoff.
Here in West Texas, the goal may be to get away.
“Kids typically run away from here to a lot of other areas, rather than run from other areas to here,” says Hogan.
According to Odessa Police Department records, there were 237 runaways reported last year in the city.
“It is sometimes the same kid, sometimes it is other kids but it does happen very very often,” says OPD Detective Marlene Sotelo.
12 % of those children had run away before. This year from January until the end of April, there have been 77 reported runaway cases.
“We get, I want to say, because they’re really about 4 to 5 a week – usually what happens if they run away, to come back a few days later. Parents do call in and file a runaway report,” says Detective Sotelo.
Detective Sotelo says the cases she responds to are normally about the child’s rebellious nature.
” Drugs or alcohol, or they just don’t want to live under the parents rules, or they don’t want to be at home, and you don’t wanna listen. Or they just don’t want to be there, they want to go with the friends. It’s usually typically how it all is. They just don’t want to go by rules the parents set up, and unfortunately, we all have to live by those rules,” says Detective Sotelo.
McQueen says psychologically, it’s typical for kids to look for independence.
“A growing sense of wanting to make my own decisions, which again, is, i would be concerned if a junior high child did not want to do that. If they’re not hitting those developmental milestones, so to speak. I think that’s the primary thing happening is this sense of, I can make my own decisions, I can think by or myself. That need for autonomy that kids at that age have, and they’re trying to develop, but need parental… adults in their life who can shape that properly,” says McQueen.
It’s critical to remember that it’s not always that kids want to have grown up rights.
“That is partially true, those cases do exist, but I do think the reasons they run away tend to be a little more complex than that,” says McQueen.
The National Runaway Safeline helps children who are thinking about running away, or who have run away. Not all kids who run away say why they want to leave, but the data shows a few main reasons.
NRS Runaway Statistics
- Family dynamics: 43%
- Abuse and neglect: 18%
- Mental health issues: 10%
- Peer and social issues: 9%
- Other reasons: 20%
As those statistics show, sometimes it’s unsafe to be at home.
“There are a number of cases where kids are leaving their home because of abuse and neglect. They see that as their only to safety, or their only way out. They don’t feel like they have anyone that they can safely let know what’s going on at home,” says McQueen.
“If situations like that happen, like in our unit, we deal with family violence, CPS, Crisis Center, Harmony home. We all work together. If there’s something that the kids has to be removed, CPS will take care of it. If there’s a concern with family violence, things like that, the child will be removed,” says Detective Sotelo.
Sometimes they feel like they have nowhere to turn.
“In many cases, these youth are being kicked out, or it’s the absolute last ditch effort, right? This is the last thing that most youth want. This is the last resort. I think there are a lot of thoughts that people do this because it’s rebellion, and this is just trying to do something to seek attention, and it’s just not what we see,” says Stern.
Sometimes, it’s about internal struggle. High Sky Children’s Ranch Executive Director JaLynn Hogan says she fostered a teenager who ran away.
“She lived with me and we had a great relationship, but she also had her mother that was in the picture, and her mother was very involved as well. Although it seemed like a really good situation, it put her kind of at odds with herself, knowing kind of where she belonged and what she wanted. She made some bad choices, and was in trouble a little bit, and so she decided to run away,” says Hogan.
Hogan says she searched everywhere she could think to look.
“It was a scary, scary time for me and for her mother as well, because her mother didn’t know where she was either,” says Hogan.
Hogan says her mind went to bad scenarios because she’s seen and heard of the dangers runaways face.
“I knew also that you need to act when there’s a runaway, because the more time that goes by, the harder it is kind of to find them, and the more risk they can find themselves in,” says Hogan.
The Texas Center for the Missing says runaways do face certain risks, but there’s another layer for those who have been in a state’s care.
“Unfortunately children who are in care, either foster families or group homes are particularly at risk for running away and injuring themselves. They’re in a horrible situation, not of their making, typically,” says Alberts.
Two months later, Hogan’s foster child was found with a cousin in North Texas.
“It certainly gave me another level of compassion. Not just for the children of course, but also for the parents that care for the children,” says Hogan.
A fear that comes to mind is that runaway children could be trafficked. It’s a real possibility.
“Someone could be promised to a better life and stuff like that, and they go with that because they want to escape the life that they have now. They don’t know how bad the world is out there…and they do tend to, a lot of them do tend to get through human trafficking sometimes as well. That’s a big problem all over the United States,” says Detective Sotelo.
NRS numbers show the common age that children run away is 15 to 17. According to Detective Sotelo, kids typically start running away around middle school. Both the detective and McQueen agree it’s not typical in their experience to see many elementary school kids run away from home. However, the trend of young children leaving is going up.
” You know you hear these stories about the stresses that people feel starter at earlier ages and things. the stresses of the world hitting youth younger and younger… to the point that in 2020,we had just shy of 600 youth under age 12 reach out to us,” says NRS Chief Engagement Officer Jeff Stern.
When children leave their homes, they make easy targets for predators, or other people who want to take advantage of them.
“There’s very few people out there who are going to take good care of you. They’re often exposed to traumatic experiences. The cost of getting food, shelter… people don’t typically give those things away to kids in that situation so they’re often exposed to traumatic experiences,” says McQueen.
Family abductions make up nearly 5 % of NCMEC’s missing children’s cases.
“The reason those children go missing, they’re abducted by their own family member, from their own parent, their own mother or their own father, for whatever reason is taking place, inside their own home. The one parent decided, I’m going to take this child,” says Bischoff.
Even though it’s a person they know, that abduction can cause trauma that can impact their mental health.
“Depression, anxiety, PTSD, there’s an extra layer those children have worn through when it comes from family members,” says McQueen.
McQueen says children who have gone through family abductions learn that trusted relationships aren’t safe.
“There’s some long-term work that needs to happen to establish future trust in a relationships, that tendency to be ultra guarded, the challenge they have after the abduction, after they’ve been returned…of forming meaningful relationships from that point forward,” says McQueen.
Even if the child is fed, given shelter, and all their basic needs are met, it can be tough for the child to grasp what’s happening.
“The story that they will tell the child is often a little bit twisted and often paints the abductor in a very clean and wronged light, and will often villainize the people they’re being taken away from. it leads to a great sense of confusion,” says McQueen.
In some cases, the child could be in serious danger.
“Most people when they say well the parent has the child, how bad could it be? Well it can be really bad. I mean, just two of our amber alerts, the father killed the mother and took the child. So that child, who is to say that child may only be a pawn if the person was surrounded by police?,” asks Alberts.
Non-family abductions are rare among missing children’s cases, but experts say it’s ingrained in our mind to look out for strangers.
“The stranger abductions are super scary, the child is most at risk of harm or death, and most people I think know, right? Respond quickly and urgently to those cases,” says Alberts.
Many students are taught both in school and at home to be wary of adults we don’t know.
“Many of the situations are what we’re were raised on as children. ‘Would you like to pet my dog? Would you like my ice cream?’ Everything that we were raised on in knowing what to avoid as children, they’re still very much used today…that’s where it comes down to the parents having those conversations,” says Bicschoff.
The Texas Center for the Missing says children are most vulnerable being abducted by somebody driving by in a car as students are on their way to and from school. When families get ready for a new school year, they should figure out who will pick them up, and what to do if somebody claims their parents said to get them.
“If you’re going to pick up your child at a specific location, make sure that you have a plan. Make sure they’re aware of the plan. All those details as some would see maybe just not important, they are,” says Bischoff.
With kids online more often, and with many learning virtually, there are added risks.
“In this day and age, you know, a fair amount of families across the United States, have their children on online school. All this time we’ve been telling our parents: watch what your children do online, be aware of their online environment. Now we’re in an environment where they have to be online many hours throughout the day,” says Bischoff.
Experts say it’s good to know what websites and social media accounts your child uses for schoolwork and for fun.
“Most children are not snatched on the street. Most children are enticed online or run away to meet somebody they found online, and so parents don’t even realize what kids are doing online,” says Alberts.
Just under one percent of NCMEC cases are listed as “other.”
“Basically where no one knows what happened to the child, the child is just not where they’re supposed to be, there’s not a lot of evidence pointing to an abduction, runaway disappearance, or anything like that, and those we just don’t know. we don’t know where the child went, or how the child went missing,” says Bischoff.
Sometimes these kids are lost, sometimes they’re injured, or maybe there’s no explanation for why they’re gone. Maybe they were abducted, but nobody saw it happen. Or maybe they’ve wandered because of a medical reason like Autism elopement. But experts say in any of these cases, a prevention plan is key.
“Traffickers we can arrest, people that use children to seek drugs, people that exploit kids, but you’re never going to get all of them. The best way is prevention education,” says Alberts.
Experts say to teach children about safety from a young age, and teach them based on how they can best understand.
“It starts with education and communication. Right in the home life between the parent and the child. Letting the child know in a safe and respectable way, how to be safe,” says Bischoff.
Keep communication open. Make sure your children are comfortable talking to you about serious issues, and monitor what they do online.
“Children are way more technologically savvy than parents. The internet safety programs that we do for children and parents are probably some of the most preventative work that can be done in the field,” says Alberts.
Sometimes parents don’t know what their kids are seeing or hearing with all that’s on the internet, which makes it harder to know what they even need to talk to kids about.
“Our main job is to get our children safely to adulthood. We have to divert a lot of attention to that, and make sure we know who they’re seeing, what they’re saying, where they’re going online, all those things,” says Alberts.
While parents are the ones who hold responsibility, communication and understanding need to be a two-way road. As JaLynn Hogan explains, her own foster daughter running away from home taught her a valuable lesson.
“I think it also reminded me sometimes we get forgetful. Really paying attention to kids and their hearts and their voices,” says Hogan.
The NRS encourages children who are considering running away to call their hotline.
“In 2020, 71% of the people who reached out to us were actually still at home. So this highlights the importance of prevention,” says Stern.
Parents and those who aren’t parents can do their part for the community, too.
“Sharing missing persons posters, being interested in those cases, can actually make a big difference,” says Alberts.
“When every parent that’s in the situation of having a missing child, would virtually do anything they could to rewind the clock. Let’s do the prevention part first and not have to do the, you know, close the barn door when the horse has already escaped,” says Alberts.
There are resources at the national, state, and local level. The NRS says family dynamics are a large reason why children run from home. In some cases, the Stay Together program at High Sky Children’s Ranch may help sort out the issues that make a child feel isolated and not want to be home.
“Stay Together is our program that works with families in their own homes and the goal of that program is to help teach families the skills they need to be a healthy family system to be able to communicate and work together to help parents raise children that have good values and character. To grow out to be good members of society, to help those families to bridge whatever gap that they perceive that’s keeping their family from being as functional as they would like it to be,” says Hogan.
For children who don’t feel comfortable reaching out to organizations or law enforcement, look at the people you see every day.
“We have other resources locally. Friends you trust, mentors, teachers. That’s really important, and we want you to find people you trust to help you get through challenging times safely, and thinking through all of the implications of what your next step might be,” says Sterns.
If parents suspect their child has run away, they don’t have to wait to file a report.
“As soon as you think that person or that runway away is not in, you have every right to call into us to do a report and everything,” says Detective Sotelo.
Detective Sotelo says that report gets put into a national database that can help law enforcement search for the child by their name and birthday. If your child is missing, there are steps you can take to be proactive.
“Absolutely call law enforcement first. Then you can call us. Anywhere in the country. Anywhere in the state. You can call us, we can help work on any situation, like who has resources in their region, we can help people do flyers and social media posts,” says Alberts.
It’s nerve-wracking to think your child may have willingly left, been forcefully taken, or to not know what happened.
“We work with families when they have a loved one missing. We walk them through how to contact law enforcement, to file a report, if search and rescue services are needed, how to access those services…and then for a long time we actually support the families for that process, we stay right there with them,” says Alberts.
But the goal is for your child to be safe, happy, and healthy.
“If there’s any doubt, you can call us at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at our 1-800-THE-LOST number,” says Bischoff.
Help is there for people who want it.
“We all need help along life’s journey and there is nothing wrong with asking someone, ‘Hey will you come along side us and help us with this and this,’ because we all need that,” says Hogan.