http://lubbockonline.com/crime-and-courts/...er#.TkEmUmH1EucMissing kids from runaways to abductees are still in danger
When a 13-year-old Lubbock girl went missing in April, fears raced through her mother's mind of the girl being exploited on local streets.
Posted: August 6, 2011 - 10:24pm | Updated: August 7, 2011 - 12:42am
By Robin Pyle
When a 13-year-old Lubbock girl went missing in April, as fears raced through her mother’s mind of the girl being exploited on local streets.
Sarah, whose name has been changed to protect her daughter’s identity, called police right away on April 12.
Police came, took a report and then left the house.
Her daughter was a runaway.
When police didn’t launch a public search or issue a missing person alert to the media, the family took matters into their own hands and pleaded with the public for help finding the girl, who needed her medication.
They created a Facebook page. They contacted local media, got businesses to donate about 500 copies of fliers, called emergency rooms and then held a public rally on April 15.
The girl returned home on her own that night.
The mother said she felt police should’ve done more, but didn’t because her daughter was “just a runaway,” though police said they investigated the case and looked for the missing girl.
“I just feel that missing runaway teens are not a priority (for Lubbock police),” Sarah said. “There’s got to be a different way we deal with our kids. ... I just worry about the kids when they become missing; somebody has to act.”
While many in the community saw the photo of Sarah’s daughter in April, the public doesn’t hear about hundreds of missing teen cases in Lubbock each year.
Lubbock police investigate, on average, about 55 runaway reports a month, according to 2010 numbers released by the agency.
There were 662 reports of runaways last year in the city.
Despite public criticism of Lubbock police this year about the runaway classification and response to those cases, local authorities say there are just too many runaways to issue missing person alerts to the public and launch extensive searches for each one.
But, they say, they do investigate runaway cases; they do search for them; they do enter the missing teen into the National Crime Information Center and they do send out local broadcasts to all Lubbock police officers.
“The problem with (issuing alerts for all runaways) is it’s going to dilute the tools we have for missing persons,” said Sgt. Jonathan Stewart, a spokesman for the Lubbock Police Department.
Stewart said the system “would be overwhelmed.”
Not only would police resources be overwhelmed, Stewart said, but the public no longer would pay attention to missing person alerts because they’d be so common.
At 662 a year, that’s an average of nearly two a day in Lubbock alone.
In fact, the Amber Alert system has very strict criteria to prevent the system from being overused, so the public pays attention when an alert is issued. Amber Alerts are reserved for cases when a child is abducted and believed to be in immediate danger.
The Texas Department of Public Safety last year only issued nine statewide Amber Alerts out of the 27 requests from law enforcement agencies across Texas, said Tela Mange, a spokeswoman. The agency doesn’t track local and regional alerts.
About 60,000 juveniles, on average, are reported missing each year in Texas, according to DPS.
Most are runaways.
When a child goes missing in Lubbock, the process starts with a Lubbock patrol officer.
The responding officer is responsible for determining if a teen is a runaway, kidnap victim or an “at-risk” missing person, Stewart said.
That initial classification is key in determining police response.
If a person is deemed “at-risk” and can’t be found in a “reasonable amount of time,” Lubbock police policy dictates the patrol officer will call for more officers and the shift commander.
The shift commander will control the operation and “use the resources needed to find the person,” according to the department’s written policy.
The search will continue until “directed by the Chief or an Assistant Chief in the Chief’s absence.”
All children younger than 10 are assumed an “at-risk” missing person because of age, according to Lubbock police policy.
If a child is believed abducted, the response is even greater, including immediate release of a photo of the child to the media and a request to the state to activate the statewide Amber Alert system.
These cases are very rare — there have been fewer than a handful in recent Lubbock history.
One such example was when 16-year-old Joanna Rogers went missing May 4, 2004. A nationwide Amber Alert was issued two days later, according to multiple media reports.
Later, her body was found at the Lubbock landfill.
However, in cases where the missing children are believed to be runaways, the protocol is different.
Stewart said the officer still investigates at the scene, but a large-scale and extensive search is not conducted.
However, that doesn’t mean the case is filed away and forgotten.
“We still do search for these kids,” Stewart said.
A “runaway” case is assigned to a juvenile detective, who follows up on leads and continues an investigation.
When Sarah’s 13-year-old daughter went missing in April, Lubbock police said they investigated the case and searched for the missing girl.
At the time, detectives interviewed the girl’s family and friends and looked into several leads over the course of the three days she was gone from home, Stewart said.
But her mother said she never received another call after police left her house regarding the status of the investigation and what officers were doing to find her daughter.
“There was no follow-up,” the mother said. “When (police) left my house, their comment was ‘call us when she returns.’ ”
She said during those three days she received some negative comments from the public about her daughter “just being a runaway.”
“I keep hearing that ‘she wasn’t missing; she was a runaway.’ Well, what’s the difference?” the mother recently asked. “Is she missing or just a runaway. ... To me, they’re the same.”
The mother said she understands there are “many, many, many” runaways, and the Amber Alert system is designed for kidnap victims under certain circumstances.
Sarah said she also understands Lubbock police may not have the resources or officer staff to extensively pursue runaways.
However, she feels runaway cases should still be handled with more urgency and importance.
Perhaps a special task force should be formed to focus specifically on runaways, she suggested.
The mother pointed out that teens away from home, although they may leave voluntarily, are still very vulnerable and at-risk.
“I knew every minute she was out of my home, she was a target to be prey to something, to be exploited,” the mother said.
A runaway’s life
State and national runaway experts agree that youth who run away are vulnerable.
About 5,000 runaway and homeless youths die from assault, illness and suicide each year across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The National Runaway Switchboard reported about 10 percent of youth in runaway/homeless shelters have turned to trading sex for money, food, shelter, drugs or other subsistence needs, according to studies released in the late 1990s. The numbers for those on the street are worse — 28 percent say they have engaged in survival sex.
But that doesn’t happen to most of the 1.6 to 2.8 million youth who run away each year in the U.S., according to the switchboard. Experts say most return home in a short amount of time.
Stewart said most local runaway cases are resolved quickly, with the teen voluntarily returning home within a few hours or a day or so.
The image of a youth packing a sack, hitchhiking across the country and living on the street is not the picture of the average Lubbock runaway, he added.
“It’s actually a rare occasion to go to a life on the street,” Stewart said of local runaways.
Most are staying with friends overnight or multiple different people for several nights and don’t tell their parents because of an argument or out of rebellion.
According to the Texas Runaway Hotline, many runaways aren’t running to something, but from what they perceive to be overwhelming problems.
Some examples include: physical and/or sexual abuse, difficulties with parents, peer pressure, school, drugs, alcoholism, sexual identity or getting thrown out.
Family conflict was named as the top reason teens say they run away, according to the National Runaway Switchboard.
Sarah said her family would find out later that her 13-year-old daughter had been staying at a half-sister’s house, who didn’t realize at first the girl was running away. She had not run from family problems, but a past traumatic event in her life that left her overwhelmed.
But her mother declined to discuss the event because she wanted to protect her daughter.
When Elizabeth Ennen, 15, went missing early Jan. 5, police initially classified her as a runaway, though they later learned she had been abducted and murdered on a baby-sitting job.
Despite criticism from the public about how police handled the Ennen case in January, Stewart said police followed policy and did what they could with the information they had at the time.
In that case, a police officer responded to the scene early Jan 5. He interviewed Ennen’s mother and the family friend who later was charged with kidnapping and murdering her. Police said officers also searched the neighborhood.
The family tried to search on their own over the next two weeks.
They contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which helped them prepare a missing person poster they distributed around town.
The media didn’t know about Elizabeth’s case until later, when the family tried to get help drawing public attention.
At the time, authorities said there were no indicators Elizabeth had been kidnapped.
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said he believes Lubbock police acted as they should have in the case, considering the information available at the time.
He said police entered Ennen’s name into the system and followed up with an investigation, which many departments don’t do in runaway cases.
“The key element is not what law enforcement calls it; it’s how they respond to it,” Allen said.
In Elizabeth’s case: “She may have been called a runaway, but (police) instantly focused on people with whom she came into contact with.”
Allen also noted that most initial classifications of missing youth turn out to be wrong, making imperative a police investigation, regardless of the classification.
“What the law says is it doesn’t matter whether the missing juvenile is missing for an innocent reason or a serious reason, they’re considered to be at-risk,” Allen said.
Classifying missing teens
When a Lubbock patrol officer determines the initial classification of a missing teen, it’s not a cut-and-dry process.
“You have to take each situation individually and take the circumstances as a whole,” Stewart said, noting that missing teens are automatically assumed “runaways.”
“Officers before (the Elizabeth Ennen case) and since that case look at each case on its own individual merit,” Stewart said, noting there hasn’t been any policy changes since Elizabeth’s body was found in late January.
Police look for “indicators” the teen either left on his or her own free will or was taken involuntarily.
The indicators a missing person may have left involuntarily may be different in every case, Stewart said.
In cases absent obvious information — such as a witness reporting to see a child abducted — the officer must look at the circumstances to determine if there’s anything suspicious, leading him or her to believe the child is at-risk.
Officers examine, for example, whether the child has a serious medical condition or mental impairment.
Officers need some indications — though not necessarily solid evidence — a child may have been taken against his or her will or other risk factors, such as mental illness, to classify as at-risk, Stewart said.
Some questions officers look at include: did the child threaten to run away, are there problems at home that might have led to a runaway situation or is there any evidence or signs of an abduction.
Stewart said initial classification is not based upon intuition.
“It’s laid out in policy. ... It’s not gut instinct, it’s training and information the officer receives,” Stewart said.
All officers receive training at the Lubbock Police Academy regarding missing person cases.
* Capt. Chris Bachman said officers receive several hours of classroom training over about a two-class period to specifically learn about their role in the process.
In addition to learning about missing person forms, officials teach the cadets red flags associated with at-risk missing persons and what questions they need to be asking “to determine the response needed.”
However, cadets also take in several talks and classes from juvenile officers, who again go over missing person cases involving juveniles.
And much of their training comes from learning hands-on when new officers accompany field training officers for 15 weeks before they hit the streets on their own.
Here’s how the Lubbock police policy reads: “Many reported missing persons leave voluntarily and runaway juveniles tend to repeat. Others, such as young children, elderly, and the mentally or physically impaired, disappear in situations indicating they are at risk. LPD staff will carefully consider all missing persons reports to identify those who may be at risk. There is no specific time limit to meet before declaring a person missing.”
Regarding the initial call taking: “LPD staff taking missing persons calls will gather enough information to determine if the person is at risk.”
Absent any indicators of possible foul play, Stewart said, officers often and routinely classify a missing teen as a runaway. In addition, officers don’t have to prove a child as a runaway to classify him or her as such.
In a state effort to keep runaways safer, runaways can turn to the Texas Runaway Hotline by calling 1 (888) 580-HELP. All calls are free and confidential and don’t show name or location. Juveniles can even call from home and not worry about the number showing up on their parents’ phone bill.
The statewide hotline also offered a free message service so runaways can communicate with parents indirectly.
Parents may call the hotline to see if their runaway has left a message.
In addition, the hotline offers “Operation Home Free,” a free transportation service, and gives teens information to more than 2,000 lists of community services, including numbers for shelters and confidential pregnancy information.
For more information, go to www.dfps.state.tx.us/Runaway_Hotline.
Runaways also can call the 24-hour national hotline at 1 (800) RUNAWAY. Teens also can call the hotlines if they’re thinking about running away, but haven’t done so.
* A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Chris Bachman's rank with the Lubbock Police Department. He was promoted to captain in June 2011.