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Missouri's Statewide Database of Missing Kids Paints Unreliable Picture

The inaccurate data could be fueling theories that young black youths, in particular, are being kidnapped to work for sex traffickers, which has prompted at least two St. Louis area police departments to revamp how they keep track of missing juveniles.

(TNS) -- Djion Oates was arrested and charged with robbery on his 16th birthday and sentenced to five years of probation. About three years later, he was arrested and charged with murdering a man on MetroLink. But according to the Missouri Highway Patrol’s website, he has been missing since he was 15 years old.

And he’s not the only one whose name appears on the state’s list of missing juveniles who have long since been accounted for either by subsequent run-ins with police, unreported reunions with their families or even death. The list has fluctuated between 370 and 380 missing juveniles throughout the month of May.

Police say parents and guardians are lax about following up when juveniles they report missing are found. Some parents, including Oates’ mother, Lakesha Oates, blame police for not following up with them or filing proper paperwork.

“If the police don’t want to help and their information is not up to date, what can we do?” Oates asked. “It’s sad that there is no follow-up on none of these kids.”

Whatever the cause, the inaccurate data could be fueling theories swirling on social media that young black youths, in particular, are being kidnapped to work for sex traffickers, and no one’s watching. Those theories have prompted at least two St. Louis area police departments to revamp how they keep track of missing juveniles.

But researchers said there is no clear consensus on how much time police should spend tracking missing juveniles and updating lists. Data suggest nearly all of the kids return, said David Finkelhor, an expert at the University of New Hampshire who has studied child abduction cases.

“The only thing one can conclude from these lists is the number of children who, at some point, were being sought, and one cannot really conclude anything about the number of children still currently missing,” Finkelhor said. “It could be a problem in the sense that if people are skeptical that it’s very current, it may make them more reluctant to use it.”

A clearinghouse?

Under the Missing Children’s Assistance Act, the federal government requires police to report cases of missing children to the FBI and the National Crime Information Center. The act designated certain agencies to act as “clearinghouses” for the information, Finkelhor said.

In Missouri, the Highway Patrol is the clearinghouse. In Illinois, it’s the state police.

“The thinking was that if law enforcement was obligated to make these reports, then it would be easier for other law enforcement agencies to locate and return missing children because they could go to these lists and see that the child they apprehended or had contact with was on the list, or may have been prompted to look for a child because their information was up there,” Finkelhor said.

But the Missouri Highway Patrol does not follow up on reports of missing juveniles, said Sgt. Al Nothum. It posts the reports on its website, but relies on the agencies that submit them to follow up, Nothum said.

About 57 percent of the 370 children listed as missing on the Highway Patrol’s website last week came from Kansas City, St. Louis and unincorporated St. Louis County. The next highest jurisdiction, at 4 percent, was Berkeley, with 16 kids on the list.

Berkeley Police Chief Art Jackson said his department began auditing its missing juvenile reports about a month ago when the number was at 20 and has so far accounted for 14.

In neighboring Ferguson, investigators accounted for seven of its eight missing juveniles this year, said Frank McCall, former police chief in Berkeley and now deputy chief in Ferguson.

Most of the happy endings came through calls to the reporting parties, who told police that their child had long since returned. Investigators found others on the missing list had renewed driver’s licenses or entered college, Jackson said.

“The majority of parents just don’t call us,” Jackson said. “A lot of them are habitual runaways and once they return, the parents just leave it alone.”

The department will not remove them from the Highway Patrol’s list, however, until a police officer actually sees the child to verify that he or she is safe, Jackson said.

“Sometimes we do get a little lax because we deal with habitual runaways all the time, but it’s something we need to work on and we are actively creating a policy to follow up on these missing children,” Jackson said.

Lakesha Oates said she reported her son missing after he didn’t come home from school three months before his 16th birthday in 2014. She found him at a friend’s house.

“He didn’t want to come home because he knew he was in trouble,” Oates recalled.

She said she took him to the Berkeley Police Department the next day to prove her son was safe.

She said she was shocked to learn from a reporter last week that her son still is listed as missing.

Larger departments, such as the St. Louis County police, have policies that require officers to get a photograph of the missing juvenile and “identify previous patterns.” Missing juvenile reports are to be entered into several databases, and watch commanders are to follow up with the person who filed the report within 24 hours to determine whether the child has been located.

Reports about those follow-up contacts should be sent to the Domestic Violence Unit, which is then responsible for the case, according to the policy.

If a juvenile is located, the officer who found him or her is responsible for canceling the runaway entry or notifying the originating agency if the child was reported missing.

But how well the policy works is unclear. The Highway Patrol’s list had 30 juveniles reported missing from St. Louis County, while the department had 34. Department spokesman Sgt. Shawn McGuire did not make anyone from the department available for comment.

Proper perspective

Research on runaways and missing juveniles is limited and dated. Finkelhor and two other researchers co-wrote a study in 2002 that analyzed data from national household surveys and juvenile facilities from 1999.

They concluded that the more than 1.7 million youths who had a runaway or “thrown away” episode in 1999 were equally divided among gender and race, and only 21 percent were reported to police. Kids listed as “thrown aways” are those who have been asked to leave home for at least one night.

In Missouri last week, 194 girls and 176 boys were listed as missing. About 54 percent of missing girls were black; 43 percent were white. About 61 percent of missing boys were black and about 35 percent were white.

Finkelhor’s research concluded that 77 percent of missing juveniles are gone for less than a week, and only 7 percent are gone more than a month. Fewer than 1 percent had not returned home.

“We discovered a lot of kids who go missing are not necessarily just out on the streets or in nature, a lot run away to friends’ houses or are taken in by another family member,” he said. “The vast majority of kids who go missing has nothing to do with sex trafficking at all.”

He said kids in foster care or group homes who run away or are kicked out are at greater risk of getting involved in sex trafficking, often because they have no way to find a place to stay or earn money.

The number of children reported missing has been declining for years, said Robert Lowery Jr., vice president of the Missing Children Division at the Washington-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

When the organization first formed in 1984, about 800,000 juveniles were reported missing. Last year, that number had been cut almost in half. About 98 percent of children who are reported missing are found, compared to about 63 percent in the 1980s, Lowery said.

Lowery, former Florissant assistant police chief, credits technology for the decline in missing children reports. Kids can stay in touch with their families more easily, and the increase in surveillance and cellphone cameras have deterred child predators from kidnappings, he said.

But technology also has given rise to online sexual predators, he said.

The national organization keeps a list of missing juveniles on its website, but it requires pictures. A “report sighting” option is on each poster.

Lowery acknowledges that keeping the database updated is a challenge. He said his group had one child reported missing 40 times in one year.

Should a missing child report linger online, it could raise unexpected questions for children who seek employment later as adults, Lowery added.

“Once that information hits our site and is shared on social media, it has a tendency to reside out there forever,” he said.

Gebar Byrd’s picture was once on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website. The 1-year-old and his mother disappeared from St. Louis in March 2013. The woman’s body was found 17 days later. Although Gebar’s body was never found, the organization removed the child’s entry after his father was convicted of killing him and his mother.

St. Louis police, who would not speak with a reporter about this issue, still have Gebar’s name, birth date, and the date he was last seen on the Highway Patrol’s missing juvenile list.

Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

©2017 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC