More than 3,100 children were reported missing in Cuyahoga County in 2015.
When Vicki Anderson, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cleveland Bureau, thinks about the issue, her mind can’t help but turn to the region’s most high profile case.
Three years ago, the world’s attention was cast on Cleveland, when three women escaped years of captivity inside Ariel Castro's home on Seymour Avenue.
“We were following up on every lead,” Anderson said, recalling the long search. “We were looking everywhere for those young ladies. We were trying so desperately to find them. We were walking in houses, we were interviewing people, we were all over the place doing that.”
When it comes to investigating the cases of missing children, that’s a plight that may be growing more and more familiar to law enforcement officers across the country and here at home. The amount of reported missing children in Ohio is on the rise.
MISSING CHILDREN: BY THE NUMBERS
More than 18,600 missing children reports were filed across the state in 2015, according to the annual overview from the state attorney general’s office released Wednesday.
That’s a slight uptick from 18,097 in 2014.
The majority of those children fell between the ages of 13-17, and more than half of last year’s reported missing kids were girls.
Ninety-seven percent of those children were recovered safely.
There are more than 700 children currently reported missing across the state.
WHAT MISSING MEANS
Local authorities have the option to note the circumstances surrounding a child’s disappearance when making their mandatory report to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (also referred to as the NCIC) database, according to the attorney general’s office.
Roughly 50 percent of the entries filed contain that information.
Missing person circumstances fall into three main categories:
- Runaway: The NCIC defines a child under this label if they’ve left home without permission and stays overnight.
- Abducted by a noncustodial parent: This NCIC classifies this as when "a parent, other family member, or person acting on behalf of the parent or other family member takes, keeps, or conceals a child (or children), depriving another individual of his or her custody or visitation rights.” This can happen before or after a court makes a decision regarding custody arrangements, the NCIC points out.
- Abducted by a stranger: There’s two scenarios under this label, the NCIC says. It could be a "nonfamily perpetrator who takes a child by using physical force or bodily harm," or "the child is taken, detained, or voluntarily accompanies a nonfamily perpetrator who conceals the child's whereabouts, demands ransom, or expresses intention to keep the child permanently."
HOW ALERTS WORK
If you have a smartphone or have driven past some large billboards, there’s a strong chance you’re familiar with one of the strongest tools law enforcement agencies use to find missing kids: AMBER alerts.
Ohio adopted this strategy in 2003, according to state officials. It’s a collaboration between local law enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies, and telephone companies to safely recover missing kids.
Once authorities input the relevant information they have into the NCIC database and reach out to neighboring law enforcement agencies, the ball is rolling.
A variety of other state agencies are alerted, and a statewide message is sent to every law enforcement agency. Descriptions of the missing child (and, in same cases, the alleged missing abductor) are shared across an emergency alert system.
The message is also shared a variety of ways, including via emails, faxes, text messages, and on social media outlets.
But not every missing child report triggers this alert.
To be considered an AMBER alert, the following criteria must be met, according to state officials:
- The child involved in the abduction is younger than 18
- There’s a credible, immediate threat of bodily harm or death
- The child isn’t a runaway
- The case isn’t related to a child custody dispute (unless there’s a serious threat)
- There’s enough information to create a description of the child or the abductor
The state issued 12 AMBER alerts in 2015. Each child was recovered safely, according to state data.
A different alert can still be pushed even if report doesn’t meet all of the AMBER alert criteria.
Law enforcement can issue an endangered missing child alert when a report matches all of the AMBER alert criteria, but authorities can’t determine if the child was abducted.
Seventeen endangered missing child alerts were issued in 2015.
Each child was safely recovered.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
There’s the obvious steps--teach your children not to talk to strangers, avoid playing in unfamiliar areas, and not to open the door when a parent’s not home.
But as the FBI’s Anderson points out, stranger abductions are actually pretty rare.
Often times, the child has crossed paths with the potential abductor before.
“It may not be somebody that the family automatically thinks of,” she said. “But maybe it’s someone who’s been in the house fixing a hot water tank, or maybe has been at the neighborhood cook out.”
And in the digital age, she added there’s also an increased push to keep tabs on what your kids are doing online.
“So many times when a child is missing, we grab every electronic device that child has had access to,” she said.
“Because so many times, that’s where the information is, that’s how we determine who they’ve been communicating with, what they’ve been saying. People lock their doors at night, but they don’t turn off their computer.”
She recommends monitoring all of your children’s social media outlets, along with digging in and truly understanding what types of apps they’re putting on their phones.
The website of the state attorney general contains a searchable statewide database of missing kids in Ohio.
Currently, it lists nearly 600 reports of missing children.
Authorities are continually updating information, though, so the information may be in a state of updates and changes.
And as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (or NCMEC) points out, it’s tough to get the most accurate count of how many children are truly missing.
Many missing children are never reported.
If you have information regarding a missing child, reach out to your local law enforcement office or call the NCMEC’s toll-free hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST.