Understanding the Public's Misperceptions About Missing Children

I met Carol Ryan not too long after we found my daughter. I had called Team HOPE because I was thinking about writing a book on how to use social media to find missing and runaway children and wanted to know if it was needed or would be appreciated. She is also the parent of a daughter who went missing and was ultimately found.

Reuniting families and helping missing and runaway children get off the streets is not just a familial problem. It isn't just a police problem or a social work problem. Missing children are our communities' problem. And it is only with the work of our communities that it can be solved. Our communities need to remember that children who run away, are lured away or are abducted are all just as missing -- and they all need our help.

Tony: Briefly, tell me about about people's perceptions or misperceptions of runaway kids.

Carol: One, there is a dysfunction happening. I think that we still have a very old-fashioned attitude that runaways are bad kids, or runaways run from bad places. But, the way our system operates, we categorize any missing person as a runaway until we know otherwise. So, if there is misinformation or a lack of information, you could have somebody who left their home willingly to go sit in a car, thinking that they were going to share a conversation. Or to go run up to the gas station for a SoBe. They are not runaways.

There is also a saying that you see over and over and over again in training, that children "run from," or "run to," or "run because of." And all of those things, I think, factor. And then, like my daughter says, I would add the other one -- she just ran.

Maybe you run because of fear or uncertainty or naivety, I don't know, but we put a lot of emphasis on that, and we really ought not to.

Tony: I've heard that parents of missing children are their child's biggest advocates. Do you agree with that?

Carol: Yes, absolutely. But, here's the problem: By the mere fact that they are related to the child, they are already compromised. Because people with discerning minds will say, "Well, but you might be just protecting your own reputation. That's your baby. You don't want to admit that she's a little hellion." So, we need both. We need the parents to be advocates. But, we need other people in the community to go, "That is true. I do know this family."

It is important for everyone to realize that they can make a difference. Don't believe that you're just an average Joe. My daughter was located by a Frito Lay driver. Those girls that were found in Ohio, a neighbor from the street kicked the door open. That's the kind of common Joe. Everyday people make a difference in bringing children home.

Tony: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the missing person's community?

Carol: I think, currently, with the funding cut, I think the biggest challenge is how to shift the energy and the training. When the funding was plentiful, we were able to take the very best in the field and train them and equip them with the very best tools.

But, with funding cuts, now that's not happening as often. So, what we need to do is really emphasize working in collaboration with regular community members, getting neighborhood watches, public events that train the people.

Tony: Tell me a little bit about the work that you do.

Carol: I wear several hats. First of all, I'm a parent of a recovered amber alert. My 14-year-old daughter went missing. She left willingly out of the manipulation of a man that she knew from our church, who turned out to be a notorious guy. And when they found out his background, they issued an amber alert.

I was shocked at how quickly people -- and even professionals -- can misjudge people who might not resist or fight the abduction or the attempt to manipulate them. And it's not because they want it. It's maybe because they don't know how to resist. So, I become knowledgeable about compliant behavior. And I defend it. I really defend it. I think it's a survival behavior.

I then started getting involved with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as a parent advocate, supporting other parents with missing children. I also speak frequently at national and local conventions. I am a member of the Human Trafficking Task Force in my state and a National Victim Advocate.