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Missing person cases add up
By JACINDA HOWARD
For many, the term missing person evokes images of young children being kidnapped and held against their will by reckless and dangerous criminals.
But in Federal Way, these words are more often used to describe teenage runaways.
In any city, there is going to be a runaway population, said Doug Laird, Federal Way police detective. Federal Way is no exception.
As of May 6, a total of 162 missing person cases have been filed this year in Federal Way, according to police data compiled by crime analyst Michelle Landon.
Of those, 133 were juvenile runaway cases, according to the police data. The police department classifies anyone under age 18 as a juvenile.
Although this number is less than 1 percent of the total Federal Way population, police Det. Thaddeus Hodge assures that police take missing person reports seriously.
In Federal Way, any person who cannot be found or is not located where he or she is expected to be is a missing person, Hodge said. Federal Way police do not require the minimum 24 hours for someone to be unaccounted for before they can be reported missing, Laird said. This means juveniles reported absent from their homes, even if only for a few hours, are considered missing.
Any missing person is significant, Hodge said.
In Federal Way, a missing person case remains open until that person is found or has returned home, Laird said. The polices Criminal Investigation Section will periodically check back with the guardians of missing juveniles to update the status of each missing person case, he said.
Juveniles in the police data varied in age, with the youngest being age 11. Most were between ages 12 and 17.
In 1999, juveniles ages 15 to 17 accounted for 68 percent of juvenile missing person cases, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report labeled Second National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, found at www.missingkids.com.
Why they leave
Federal Way police follow certain policies whenever a person is reported missing.
In a runaway case, the police attempt to find the juvenile as well as conclude why he or she left home, Hodge said.
Running away is not a criminal offense. However, if police officers find a runaway juvenile, they are allowed to detain and bring the teen home, Laird said.
Reasons for why juveniles leave their homes range in seriousness. In some cases there are problems in the household that cause the juvenile to feel endangered. Social services or other resources may be suggested in these situations, Laird said.
Sometimes juveniles run away because of a disagreement with a guardian, Laird said. Older juveniles are more capable of caring for themselves and more likely to be involved in activities, legal and illegal, that their guardians do not agree with, according to the U.S. Department of Justice report. This may help explain why this population comprises the largest percentage of juvenile runaway cases.
If officers are able to determine why a juvenile may have run away, they will usually attempt to educate the juveniles guardian on ways to alleviate the problem that caused the teenager to leave home, Laird said.
The most important thing for Federal Way police is to get the missing person home safe as soon as possible, Hodge said.
On the search
Parents and guardians are the most useful resource in finding missing juveniles, Laird said.
Realistically most parents know where their kids are hanging out, Laird said.
If the juvenile is not found at a location familiar to the parents or guardians, police will submit a photograph to the Washington State Patrol clearinghouse for missing children as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he said.
These organizations have the capability to widely circulate the photo, thus increasing the chance of the juvenile being recognized and returned if he or she leaves Washington state, Laird said.
In addition to submitting a photograph, Federal Way patrol officers will keep a watch out for the juvenile. A young person walking down the street late at night is not ordinary and will catch the attention of most officers, Laird said. They will likely stop and question the juvenile as to where he or she is going, he said.
Usually, runaway juveniles return home on their own within 24 hours of their disappearance, Laird said.
Of the juveniles studied in the U.S. Department of Justice report, 58 percent of them returned home within one week.
Of course, this is not always the case. Today, four juveniles reported missing in 2007 remain absent from the Federal Way area, according to the police data.
A 15-year-old teen has been gone since Feb. 15. A 16-year-old juvenile has been absent since April 14, another 15-year-old has been missing since April 28, and a 17-year-old has been unaccounted for since April 30, according to the police data.
Contact Jacinda Howard: firstname.lastname@example.org or (253) 925-5565.
Parents or guardians with children who regularly run away may contact Det. Doug Laird at (253) 835-6724 or Det. Thaddeus Hodge at (253) 835-6764 for advice or resources for alleviating the situation. Federal Way Youth and Family Resources may also be reached at (253) 661-6634. Juveniles who feel endangered at home may also seek the help of Laird or Hodge.
In the past five years, an annual average of 319 missing person cases have been filed in Federal Way, according to Federal Way police data. As of May 6, 162 people had been reported missing in Federal Way this year.
The number of missing person cases filed in Federal Way is lower than that of cities with similar demographics, police Det. Doug Laird said.
Determining exactly how many teenagers go missing each year is a complicated task. In Federal Way, each time a person is reported missing, a case is filed. Because police do not track how many times any one person has been reported missing, a portion of the missing person cases reported in 2007 may be repeat incidents, said Stacy Flores, police spokeswoman.