MAHONING COUNTY, Ohio (WKBN) – While many counties across Ohio saw a drop in missing children reports in 2019, records show that Mahoning County reports have been on rise in recent years.
To put it into perspective, Mahoning County recorded 630 missing-children reports in 2017 and 710 reports in 2018. In the most recent Clearinghouse Report released by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Mahoning County jumped to 1,074 reports in 2019.
This was the county’s largest increase in reports since 2012.
“It’s very difficult to tell what the trends are in terms of ‘Why?’ There’s a lot of different reasons that kids go missing… sometimes, if you have persistent runaways, that can affect your county for a year or two,” said Ohio Attorney General David Yost.
Franklin County saw the most with 4,884 missing children reports in 2019. Next, was Cuyahoga County with 2,571. Mahoning County was sixth in all Ohio counties for missing children reports in 2019.
WKBN sought to better understand these reports and why Mahoning County has seen a recent increase.
Yost said his office releases the report for transparency about what’s going on and to track the data to see if issues are getting better or worse.
“The main thing is to raise awareness with parents, to be aware that this is a thing, that it’s a danger, and that there are things that you can and should do to protect your children,” he said.
When someone hears that a child is missing, abduction may be the first thing that comes to mind. However, the majority of these cases are runaways.
According to the Clearinghouse Report, Ohio recorded 18,638 missing children reports last year. Of those, 10,598 reports were considered runaways.
According to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, 200 of the missing children reports in Mahoning County came from just 10 children, indicating that they’re habitual runaways.
In June of 2020, Youngstown alone had 59 runaway reports.
Fifty-five of those cases were solved. Of the four remaining, three of them were from residential facilities and one of them from a private home.
Ohio has close to 16,000 children in foster care. Mahoning County also houses children from other counties such as Cuyahoga and Hamilton if there isn’t an opening in their home counties.
Child welfare workers say some of these children will run away to be closer to their original homes.
“They will end up back in the county that they come from because a lot of them don’t want to be housed here because they’re far away from anybody they know, but they are still recorded as runaways, and that is part of the statistics that you see reported,” said Det. Sgt. Sharon Cole, of the Youngstown Police Department’s Family Investigative Services Unit.
Jennifer Kollar, of Mahoning County Children Services, said any time a child goes missing from their system, they file a report with the Youngstown Police Department. She stressed that not every child on the report is in the custody of Children Services, so she’s only speaking about children in their care.
Anytime a child leaves without permission, that child is reported as a runaway. If they come back, another report is filed that they returned, which explains why numbers might be higher in Youngstown and Mahoning County.
Cole also said the city deals with a lot of custody issues.
“Some of the cases are in the middle of custody disputes, where they haven’t seen the other parent and the other parent hasn’t seen them, and they run away from the parent that has custody,” she said.
Currently, the pandemic is proving to have an impact on runaway incidents, specifically with older teenagers.
“The older teenagers are tired of being in the house; they want to be with their friends,” Cole said.
Kollar said a lot of the time, children will leave for the day or overnight and are usually leaving for a destination.
“They’re going to go see a boyfriend, a girlfriend, maybe they want to go back home for a relative and then they may return,” Kollar said. “But anytime they’re missing, the center or the placement where they’re at, of course, has to file a report and then notify us as well.”
Det. Sgt. Cole has been in her position since February and said one reason for the increase could be an increase in the number of facilities in the area. Youngstown is home to six facilities: New Beginnings, Safehouse, Artis Tender Loving & Care #1, Artis Tender Loving & Care #2, Redemption House and Daybreak.
Kollar said sometimes, a child requires more care due to trauma or mental health issues.
“Some children or teens who require more intensive services, they may have mental health issues, they may have trauma issues related to child abuse and neglect,” she said. “So these kids, oftentimes, require to be placed in a residential care center or residential care facility.”
The trauma that some children experience, coupled with a lack of coping mechanisms, might cause them to leave.
“A lot of these kids, especially in the child welfare system, they’ve been abused and neglected and they have a lot of trauma issues,” Kollar said. “A lot of these kids have no coping mechanisms… so their first thought is fight or flight and in child welfare, it’s flight. They’re like ‘I want out of here. I want to go back home.’”
While the majority of the cases do not involve abduction, Cole offered some advice on how to keep kids safe.
“Keep an eye on them, know where they’re going, when you give them permission to leave and who they’re with,” she said. “Make sure there’s an adult at the house that they’re going to, have a phone number, address, who all is going to be there, and know what time you’re expecting them to come home. If you can, take them yourself, pick them up yourself.”
She also said guardians should monitor children’s activity on social media and the internet to see what sites they are going on and who they are interacting with.
The use of internet and social media is big when it comes to child trafficking.
Yost echoed that and said that predators are no longer “lurking in the bushes,” but the biggest risk comes from cell phones, tablets and computers.
“The most important thing a parent can do day-to-day, week-to-week is to know what’s happening with your child and watch what they’re device usage is,” he said.
Yost mentioned there are some very good products available to monitor what a child is doing.
Some even look for key terms used by predators and will alert you when it comes across them.
“Use those tools,” Yost said.
If a child does unfortunately go missing, Yost suggests calling the police first.
“Until the police arrive, try to avoid anybody else coming into your house so that the police are able to look at the home situation for any evidence that might be there in the case of a home abduction,” he said.
He acknowledged that most missing children reports don’t involve a home invasion or an abduction from a house, but until police have been able to look around, it’s smart to eliminate people from walking through and potentially contaminating it.
Yost also mentioned that he and his team want parents to know that children should know their names, addresses and phone numbers from an early age.
“They need to have a way to get ahold of you and you need to have photographs available, images that if, God forbid, your child should go missing, one of the first questions you’re going to get asked is ‘Do you have any photographs?’” Yost said.
They use those photographs for Amber Alerts and for police who are working the case. He also said it helps if the photos are up-to-date.