When Zilphia Lowery’s 18-year-old nephew Jeremiah Pittman went missing in 1992, the family was frantic, but police – thinking he might be a runaway – weren’t very helpful.
In 1999, when Edna Dishon came home early from work one day she found something strange — her 17-year-old daughter Jessica’s car was sitting in the driveway. Jessica should have driven it to school that morning. Inside the car were a shoe, Jessica’s purse, and her phone with the number 9 dialed. The police held off on investigating, waiting to see if she would turn up by morning.
Bob Siders was a single dad raising his 18-year-old daughter Shannon in 1989. After working the night shift at a local bottling plant, he came home to no sign of his daughter. When she hadn’t appeared by the evening, he called the police in a panic. They didn’t share his fears.
When a child goes missing, we know what usually happens: the Amber alerts buzz your phone, police helicopters hover over searchers, and parents make tearful pleas on the news. But when that missing child is a teenager, there can, unfortunately, be a delay before serious investigating begins.
The reason: Older children are often assumed to be runaways who will come home in their own time. “The age of children does drive the response of the law enforcement,” says Robert Lowery [no relation to Zilphia Lowery] vice president of the Missing Children Division of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). “Unfortunately, the reality is that the older the child is, the assumption is the child is simply a runaway, that it’s the child’s behavioral problems.”
Police — and families — may think their missing teenager will get tired of partying and slink home eventually. Maybe, initially, they could be safely staying with a friend — but if they get kicked out on the street, they are at high risk of being exploited by sex traffickers, according to the NCMEC. And there are other dire consequences: “These kids gravitate toward gang activity, largely because they feel vulnerable and they need gang protection,” Lowery says. “It’s an extremely high-risk environment. They’re expected to provide some income for the gang, which could be via sex trafficking or narcotics.”
And today, with the widespread use of social media among teens, predators could be lurking on every website. “We are seeing spikes of online grooming and, over time, someone convincing a child to go with them,” Lowery says. “They may be presenting themselves as 12 or 13, but they’re actually a 35-year-old old sex offender.”
When Jeremiah Pittman disappeared, police thought he was a runaway. Four years later, in 1996, his skeletal remains were found at the bottom of a mine shaft. When Jessica Dishon didn’t show up the next morning, her parents — mistrusting the local sheriff’s office – called the FBI. Her body was found 17 days later in a dumping ground. She had been beaten, strangled, and violently sexually assaulted. In the case of Shannon Siders, the police didn’t share the father’s fears that something bad had happened to her. Two months later, a hunter stumbled upon her badly decomposed body in the woods. In all three murders, the cases went cold and it was years before they were solved.
Bottom line: It’s not safe to figure a missing teen will come home when they get bored or cool off. “Don’t assume these kids left because of behavior problems,” Lowery says. “Instead, assume these missing kids are a community problem and we need to work together — reporting sightings, monitoring social media – and that’s how we get these kids back to a safe place. Don’t say, ‘They’re just runaways and they’ll come back home.'”
(Image: Eriko Tsukamoto/Getty Images)