On Oct. 1, a teenager named Bryan Glenn went missing in Fairfax County.
His disappearance was not reported in the media. Even as his family launched a Facebook campaign to search for him, his picture was not sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which would have not only posted it on the Internet for anyone to find, but splashed it on posters in government offices and highway rest stops.
A week later, Glenn’s body was found, a possible suicide.
Glenn was only one of hundreds of children from the tri-state area alone who disappear each year and are never reported to the NCMEC, or never have their photographs posted. This is despite the fact that, according to national statistics, posting a photograph is the single most important thing family or law enforcement can do to track down a kid.
In Virginia, local law enforcement agencies are legally required to send information on every kid who goes missing to the Virginia State Police Department Missing Children’s Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse posts every one of those files on NCMEC’s website, missingkids.com. But only 24 percent included photographs. How is anyone supposed to recognize a missing child with no picture?
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, pointed out that the clearinghouse is totally dependent on local agencies to send photographs. “We work as best we can with the local agencies and strongly encourage them to provide a photograph,” she added.
Of the 16 children listed in early October as disappeared from Henrico County within the past year and still missing, only three had accompanying photographs posted on missingkids.com. The rest come with a caption saying that local law enforcement agents did not submit a photograph.
Lt. Christopher Eley, who works in special investigations at the Henrico County Police Department (one of the few that responded to questions for this story), said the police department received reports of 657 missing people (adults and children) in 2011.
“Based upon my experience I would estimate that 95 percent of the missing juveniles are runaways and return home within three to five days,” he said. “What is most shocking is that we are provided pictures by the reporting person in approximately 5 percent of missing juvenile reports taken.”
Eley said he has sent photographs to the Virginia Missing Children’s Clearinghouse for abduction cases, especially if he believes the child may have been taken outside the state, but for non-abductions, sending information to the local media tends to get the message out to people most likely to run into the child.
Of the 14 kids from Henrico County listed on missingkids.com as of Nov. 5, all but two were runaways, including the three posted with accompanying photographs. The two kids listed as family abduction victims did not have photographs posted.
While it’s true that most runaways quickly return home on their own, runaway teens, especially girls (but also some boys), are at high risk of being recruited by sex traffickers, who frequently move them between cities and states.
Richmond City, which did not respond to questions emailed to their public affairs department, only had one photo posted among 19 children missing in the past year as of early October — though since I sent an email inquiry about their dearth of photographs, two pictures have been posted for more recently disappeared kids.
At least one of the missing children without an accompanying picture, Starr Nicole Mongold, has a Facebook page including dozens of publicly accessible, up-to-date pictures that clearly show her face. The page identifies Mongold by her full name and provides her hometown, making it unlikely that it belongs to a homonymous Starr Mongold.
Mongold is 17. Some of the pictures show her with her little sister, who, according to online obituaries, passed away last year at the age of 7. According to missingkids.com, Mongold has not been seen since Aug. 31. Her most recent “wall” activity is dated July 30, 2012.
In Virginia, it’s obvious which kids have photos sent in and which ones don’t because the state police post every file, picture or no. But it’s not just Virginia police departments deciding not to post missing kid photographs.
The Maryland State Police also have a missing children’s clearinghouse that posts information on missingkids.com. Unlike Virginia, however, Maryland doesn’t create a post unless local law enforcement agencies send in a photo.
According to Carla Proudfoot, director of the Maryland State Center for Missing Children, Maryland’s clearinghouse accepts requests for a post and information from both law enforcement agencies and family members of the missing child. When she posts a kid on missingkids.com, she makes sure the automatically generated poster ends up in government buildings and at rests stops, the modern-day equivalent of milk cartons that end up in front of thousands of eyes.
She said the posters have generated all kinds of leads, including parents who recognize the missing child as one of their kids’ schoolmates, and a landlord who reported that someone who had kidnapped a family member just leased an apartment from him.
But Proudfoot estimates that she only gets photos in 10 percent of cases. Asked why agencies might not send in a photo, she said, “I can’t speak for them. I don’t know what their reasonings are.”
If a case makes local headlines, she’ll initiate contact with the investigating agency and ask if they want a poster. But she said, “That doesn’t mean that they’re going to accept our offer.”
“We try not to make those decisions because it’s not our investigation or our child,” she added.
While the District of Columbia has a missing children’s information clearinghouse, according to the NCMEC webpage, they do not appear to post any information on missingkids.com. Three children are listed as having disappeared from the district in the past year, and all of those pictures are labeled as posted by NCMEC itself.
A DC police spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Crump, said the department has found that press releases are an effective way to track down missing kids. While they cooperate with NCMEC, she said, “Only our most critical cases are referred.”