A pregnant 14-year-old girl who was reported missing more than 17 months ago was found hours after federal agents got involved in the search.
As in this case, the vast majority of missing children are believed to have run away. But those cases generally receive less attention from police, media and members of the public than child abductions — particularly when they involve children of color.
Derrica Wilson, co-founder of Black and Missing Foundation said the rescue in Michigan shows local law enforcement needs to better prioritize missing-children investigations.
“When they are labeled as runaways, there’s no sense of urgency in finding them, there’s no AMBER Alert,” Wilson said. “This is a great opportunity to review how these cases are being handled and classified.”
Here’s what to know about missing children in the United States:
Read the series:What happens when a child disappears in America?
How the pregnant 14-year-old was found in Michigan
The St. Clair County Sheriff’s office received a report in September 2021 that the girl had run away from her foster home. Local authorities spent the last year and a half chasing leads until the Michigan State Police got a tip this month that the girl might be pregnant, bumping the case up the priority list.
The latest:New details emerge about missing girl found hiding in Michigan closet
State police contacted the U.S. Marshals Service for help Tuesday. Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Watson said in an exclusive interview with the Detroit Free Press, a member of the USA TODAY Network, that federal agents worked old tips and interviewed people which led them to a house on the south side.
Within eight hours, the fugitive task force had found the girl hiding in a hallway closet in the house in Port Huron, Michigan.
St. Clair County Sheriff Mat King said in a statement he and Port Huron Police Chief Joseph Platzer were “disappointed in the lack of notification and cooperation from the Marshals.” Watson said he contacted local authorities many times prior to the rescue but never heard back.
“The information was right in front of them,” Wilson said of local law enforcement. “If they would have taken more interest in the case, this family who filed the missing persons report would not have had to endure this nightmare for well over a year.”
How many children go missing each year?
In 2021, there were over 337,000 reports of missing youth entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center. According to the NCIC, youth accounted for 32% of the over 93,700 active missing person records as of December 2021.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 98% of children reported missing are located within days, but thousands have been recovered after being missing for six months or longer.
Majority of missing children are runaways
In 2021, NCMEC assisted in nearly 30,000 cases of missing children and more than 90% of those cases involved endangered runaways.
A significant number of youth in foster care run away at least once and many do multiple times, which can put them at a greater risk of sex trafficking, substance use or involvement with the justice system, according to a 2020 report from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Missing Black children, who are less likely to be found, are disproportionately classified as runaways. Wilson estimated that 90% of the cases her foundation handles involve children labeled runaways.
US Marshals Service assists with fraction of cases
Upon request, the US Marshal Service can help federal, state and local law enforcement agencies locate missing, endangered or abducted children, according to the agency. Since 2015, the Marshals have recovered more than 2,300 missing children. They were found in 56% of cases they received.
The Marshals have recovered dozens of children through major operations like “Operation Boo Dat” in Louisiana, “Operation Safety Net” in Ohio and “Operation Not Forgotten” in Georgia.
Wilson said local law enforcement needs to “enlist the support of other agencies that may have a greater reach.”
Contributing: Gina Barton, Doug Caruso, Rachel Looker, Ashley Luthern and Sarah Toy, USA TODAY
Contact Breaking News Reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg