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What Happens After a Minor Goes Missing in the United States?

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Teen Vogue
Ashley Belanger
January 31, 2019

When Jayme Closs went missing from her Barron, Wisconsin, home on October 15, 2018, local law enforcement gathered more than 80 surveillance videos from businesses, citizens, and highways to investigate the murder of her parents and locate the lost teen.

“It’s a different way of canvassing [for missing children] than the old days,” Detective Chris Braman of the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department told the Post Crescent in December. “It’s a new age.” Law enforcement also employed drones and infrared equipment, covering the area with the latest technology. A week after her disappearance, the search party got bigger, with an estimated 2,000 volunteers forming an expansive ground search.

The FBI offered a $25,000 reward for Jayme’s safe return, which was later doubled when it was matched by her late parents’ employer, Jennie-O Turkey Store. Despite their ongoing efforts, a nationwide search, and national media coverage, Jayme remained missing for 87 days, but it wasn’t the search team that found her. “Jayme was the hero in the case,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told CNN in January. The abducted 13-year-old saved herself, escaping the house where suspect Jake Patterson allegedly held her captive. She essentially closed her own case when she told the first neighbor she encountered, “I’m Jayme.”

In 2018, there were 424,066 entries of missing children, according to FBI data; in 2017, there were 441,165. As of this writing, there is no additional data to confirm how many were found in 2018. The most sensitive cases, Lowery says, were handled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), an organization that assisted law enforcement and families in more than 25,000 cases of missing youth in 2018, such as endangered runaways (which is the majority of their cases at 92%), family abductions (4%), non-family abductions (less than 1%), lost or otherwise missing children (1%), as well as critically missing kids (3%).

“What we saw with what happened to Jayme are extremely rare circumstances. We don’t see that level of violence very often, although it’s not unprecedented when it comes to taking a child by an offender,” Robert Lowery, vice president of the Missing Children’s Division of NCMEC, tells Teen Vogue. He says it’s his department that oversees NCMEC’s participation in Amber Alert messages, which can reach an entire state in minutes. When a report comes in, NCMEC is immediately notified. They then send out urgent messages that reach road signs, transportation agencies, broadcasters, and smartphones located in the general vicinity, sometimes beyond, where a child went missing — one step of many at the NCMEC when it comes to locating critically missing children.

Child advocates John and Revé Walsh founded the NCMEC in 1984 after their six-year-old son, Adam, was abducted and murdered in Hollywood, Florida, in 1981, just two years after six-year-old Etan Patz went missing in New York City in 1979. (Patz is said to be one of the first children with his photo on a milk carton.) After discovering there was no protocol in place to locate Adam at the time, the Walsh family, along with other child advocates, created the National Center to help find missing children and prevent child victimization. Since then, the nonprofit has responded to critical cases of child abduction like Jayme Closs’s case. Funded in part by federal grants, NCMEC is able to provide resources to law enforcement, social services, and families. According to Lowery, this includes supplying specialized search teams, canines, and analysts to track the missing child online. It’s all designed to make missing children searches more efficient by streamlining the response, informed by past missing children cases with the goal of solving new cases sooner, he says.

“We also work with our federal partners at the F.B.I., the United States Marshals Service, the Secret Service, and all the federal agencies have agents embedded, working alongside […] our team, so that we have the availability of all those federal resources,” Lowery says.

So when children like Jayme Closs were missing, it’s not just their community looking for them, but also national experts. “We [send] dispatch teams right to the site with law enforcement to provide all the resources that they might need to [find that child] and return [them] home safely,” Lowery says.

Once NCMEC is notified of a missing child, each case is then assigned a case manager, many of whom are law enforcement officers specifically selected for the job because of their experience in working on missing children cases, Lowery explains. That experience is key, Alison Feigh, director of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center tells Teen Vogue. (This organization is dedicated to child safety and was founded in 1990 following the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Saint Joseph, Minnesota.) The case manager then requests the most recent photo of the missing child, Lowery says, and this is where social media comes in. With its broad reach, NCMEC and activists say it plays a large role in locating missing persons throughout the U.S., and social media is responding: Earlier this year, Facebook introduced a new feature called “Today In,” which includes missing persons alerts as part of the local news that the site intends to make more visible on users’ feeds.

“Early in my career, making posters for missing people and passing them out, we’d have a checklist of, where does this child like to go? Do they like to go to the movies? Do they have a certain store they like? And then we would blast fax that poster to those locations,” Feigh explains. “Now, just with one click of my mouse, we get that picture out and it’s shared thousands of times before we go to bed.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Why all of a sudden are there all these missing people?’ And it’s not that this is a new problem, it’s not that it’s all of a sudden — it’s that social media can help in some ways that some cases don’t get the same attention as other cases, [but that’s] based on a wide variety of factors.”

However, not every missing person is broadcasted. Cold cases that don’t get the same media attention as others are what inspired sisters Derrica and Natalie Wilson to create the Black & Missing Foundation in 2008.

They decided to make that change after 24-year-old Tamika Huston went missing from Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2004 and was later found murdered. “We learned how her family really struggled to get any type of media coverage. And then a little while later, Natalee Holloway went missing, and her name and her face dominated the news,” Natalie tells Teen Vogue. Huston’s case led the Wilsons and others to question whether there was racial profiling in media when it came to reporting on missing persons, considering the frequency of underreported missing persons of color. They’ve been active in calling attention to this disparity ever since, jumping into action again and again, including in 2017, when a high number of black teen girls in Washington, D.C., went missing with little national response. Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada have reported similar lackluster responses from police and the public when a Native girl or woman goes missing or is murdered.

“That’s what motivates us every single day: to bring awareness to the missing, who are normally overlooked by law enforcement and the media, and to help bring them home,” Natalie says. With Natalie’s career in public relations and Derrica’s in law enforcement (both maintain full-time jobs), the Black & Missing Foundation blends those backgrounds to bring awareness to missing persons of color. Sometimes, the nonprofit also works directly with NCMEC, as has the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and other groups invested in locating missing children in the U.S. Lowery says partnering with other nonprofits offers NCMEC more resources.

“They’re force multipliers,” Lowery says. “We partner with them so we have additional reach when it comes to networking with the public and making people aware of certain information we need help with.”

Beyond coordinating with NCMEC, Natalie says that Black & Missing exists to give families a place to turn, serving as a rallying force in D.C., where their biggest challenge is funding. “As the organization continues to grow, not only do we want to bring home those that are missing, but we want to educate our community on being safe and get the village involved so we have less and less persons [who go] missing,” Natalie says.

“I don’t know where I am,” Jayme said when she was found. She was just 70 miles north, two counties away from where she lived, but it was unfamiliar territory. In D.C., Natalie points out, an Amtrak train can transport a kid to Manhattan in two-and-a-half hours. That’s why the search for missing kids goes beyond the communities they’re from — it’s a nationwide effort between the NCMEC, activists, and law enforcement, where more expertise is always welcome.

Although the NCMEC doesn’t coordinate with individual volunteers, Lowery recommends to those wanting to help to contact local law enforcement. “Sometimes it can be as simple as folding posters and mailing them, to get them out. It could be just going door to door, dropping them off to let people know about it. We try to bring every resource we can to bear,” he says. Though, what’s most important when it comes to public service is taking the time to look at the missing child’s photo because, Lowery says, “engaging the public when these kids go missing has brought home countless numbers of kids.”

Law enforcement or social services agents contact NCMEC for help with a case, and family members can call its tip line (1-800-THE-LOST) or contact NCMEC online.

Photo credit: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

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