When is a runaway in danger? Girl found after weekend missing is just one of dozens in Utah
SALT LAKE CITY — Stevie Ray Shane did not want to be found.
The small, 12-year-old runaway knew her picture had been shared in the news and online after she walked out of a Salt Lake County group home Friday. She dyed her hair, spent the night in park bathrooms and didn't stop moving.
For two days Stevie and another 14-year-old runaway moved from city to city, eventually ending an intensive search and a "missing endangered" alert issued by the South Salt Lake Police Department when Stevie called a relative early Monday morning. The two girls, who were roaming the streets of Salt Lake City's east bench about 3 a.m., became frightened a car might be following them.
"(Stevie) has a history of running away, but nevertheless we needed to find her," South Salt Lake police detective Gary Keller said after the alert was canceled Monday. "She was considered 'at risk' at that age and her stature. She could easily be taken advantage of and injured or harmed by who knows who."
Cottonwood Heights police sent a call for assistance to media and the public last month when Stevie ran away, one of the several times she had left home but the first she was missing overnight.
The missing endangered protocol is an important tool law enforcement can use when they fear for the safety of a missing person, alerting law enforcement and ports of entry throughout the state, as well as media and the public.
But it can't be used for everyone.
In Salt Lake County, the Salt Lake and Unified police departments average about two missing child reports daily, sometimes handling as many as 100 cases per month, representatives from the departments estimated. The missing endangered alert must be reserved for the most at-risk cases so its impact does not become diluted through overuse.
"We haven't used it a lot," said Keller, who explained the department is now debriefing about how the case played out. "We're getting better at it, I can tell you that, and this one went very, very smoothly, with a great outcome."
Keller called the search for Stevie an example of effectively using the missing endangered alert, which police opted to use because of Stevie's age, size and information from her friends indicating she might be trying to meet with a man and travel to Las Vegas.
In contrast, a 12-year-old boy who recently went missing from South Salt Lake did not prompt a missing endangered alert because the boy was larger and stronger, and police didn't fear he would leave the state, Keller said.
The National Runaway Safeline, a 24-hour hotline and online message center for runaway and homeless youths, estimates that between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youths run away each year. Safeline reports they're kids from every socio-economic background, and nearly half of callers say they left home because of family issues tied to divorce, blended families, discipline at home or problems with siblings.
Melissa Brink, of West Valley City, knows the terror a parent feels when a child runs away. Her son, Johnathen "Johnny" Luckey, ran away six times last year, his longest disappearance lasting six days.
Johnny was 14 years old at the time and at times travelled as far as 300 miles, but his disappearances were among the dozens that never prompted a missing endangered alert.
"I understand that a majority of the teenagers who run away, it's just for attention, but that's still somebody's child," Brink said. "I get that there are priorities, but there should still be something more done than just, 'Here's your case number. Let us know if you find him.'"
Police departments, including South Salt Lake, have recently evaluated the missing endangered protocol and set their own standards for when it should be used, Keller said.
Like many departments, South Salt Lake authorizes alerts on a case-by-case basis, factoring in considerations like a missing person's age, medical conditions, physical or mental disabilities, information about other risks and weather conditions at the time.
Brink said she believes heightened awareness about runaway teens — perhaps through brief, daily televised announcements — could make a difference in Utah.
She and her son both saw the alert about Stevie over the weekend and together breathed a deep sigh of relief when they learned she had been found.
As a family, they've had a breakthrough. Johnny, now 15, hasn't run away since December, when he got frostbite on his feet spending the night in a cold, abandoned house.
"At times I felt kind of free, no worries or anything like that. But after I started thinking about it, I thought, 'What am I doing?'" he said. "Now I just really can't imagine that I did that."
Johnny and Brink began speaking regularly with separate parent and teen advocates from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who call to ask how they are doing. They are active participants in Facebook groups for local and national missing children, and can't leave the house without looking around for any faces they might recognize.
Two months ago, they came full circle.
Brink said she and her son were driving near a local park together when Johnny cried out suddenly, "Mom, stop! That's that kid from Facebook!"
Out the window, Johnny had spotted a teen from school who had been reported missing online. He and a cousin got out of the car and approached the boy while Brink circled around and called police. The boy was reunited with his family that day.
"It meant so much to me that John, knowing what we went through, did that for those parents as well, to find that child," Brink said. "It's a complete transformation from where he was six months ago."
Now, Johnny gives a simple, firsthand message to any teens he meets who are thinking of running away.
"I tell them to not do it. It's a stupid idea," he said. "It's not worth it."
For everyone else, Johnny asks people to check online information about what teens are missing in case they encounter them.
"If everyone paid attention, those kids wouldn't be gone for days. They'd only be gone for hours," he said.
Teens who are thinking about running away, who have left home and want to go back, or who have friends who are looking for help can call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RUNAWAY.
In Salt Lake County, youths or families can contact the Juvenile Receiving Center at 385-468-4500 or online at youth.slco.org.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: McKenzieRomero
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