WXTX Special Report: Slipping through the Cracks

WXTX Special Report: Slipping through the Cracks

(WTVM/WXTX) - Some leave without a trace, trying to escape from a possible bad situation. Or could it be defiance?

We're talking about teens who are missing, hiding or considered habitual runaways.

Columbus and Phenix City investigators say this is a growing trend, and every teen deserves to be located even if they don't want to be found.

In this special report, Fox 54's Irisha Jones dug digger on why teens are 'Slipping through the Cracks.'

About 2 million youth run away every year in the U.S. Those who are runaways can face a majority of problems such as being caught up in the criminal justice system, addictions and different forms of trafficking.

Special Victims Unit investigators in the valley area are faced with the daily task of keeping missing and runaway teens off the streets.

Just a few weeks ago detectives with the special victims units in Columbus scoured the city searching for several teens who are all listed as "missing."

"We have what we call a field checklist. Every so many months if we don't get a tip, we just go out and kind of saturate the area and try to put out fillers to see if anyone seen or heard anything," said Lt. Joyce Dent-Fitzpatrick of the Columbus Police Department.

These three teenagers, Qualithia Holmes, Destiny Knutson and T'erica Ogletree, each have their own missing person folder. However, they're not just missing. They're considered habitual runaways or "in hiding." This sometime leaves law enforcement running in circles chasing leads to nowhere.

"And they are out there walking around and people know that they are missing but there is some type of code that they are not going to tell on somebody who is a runaway," said Fitzpatrick.

While Columbus detectives have their hands full, a few miles across the Chattahoochee River in Phenix City, they have a clean and empty slate for the moment.

"We probably had about 10 last month," said Mark Rogers, Investigator with the Phenix City Police Special Victims Unit.

They're also seeing a similar pattern in their cases.

"Most of them are repeat runaways. We can take a report on a Tuesday, start working the cases and two days later they return home to their family," Rogers added.

But where are these teens that's still nowhere to be found by police?

Qualithia Holmes was first reported missing in October 2014. She was 15 years old at the time, living with family members in Columbus.

"We did get enough information to prove that she is somewhere in Columbus, possibly on the south side" said Fitzpatrick.

It's been four months since there was any sign of Destiny Knutson, who was reported missing from a group home in Columbus. Lieutenant Dent-Fitzpatrick says Knutson is a ward of the state of Georgia, and for that reason is considered a minor. There were reports that she was spotted recently in Phenix City.

"She's 16. If we find her we have to take her back to DFACS custody and she doesn't want that," Fitzpatrick stated.

T'erica Ogletree, seen on our newscasts several times was also reported missing from a group home. Long before Columbus police issued a BOLO (a report to be on the look-out), she was reported missing by LaGrange police.

"She likes to travel to Atlanta, GA," Fitzpatrick said. "We got information that she was seen in Eastpoint, GA and then we get information she's back in Columbus. She may stop in LaGrange on her way back to Columbus. Again, missing slash hiding."

Ogletree is also in the custody of the Department of Family and Children Services.
"Once we put her back in a group home and the door closes and people go to sleep. The chances are she can walk back out that door," said Fitzpatrick.

But how does law enforcement stop habitual runaways or missing persons? CPD says they can't but say it's their job to enlighten and educate parents. Special Victims Investigators in Phenix City has a solution that works for them.

"What we normally do is have a petition signed on that child by the parent or guardian. That petition will get that child in front of the judge in juvenile court and from there he makes a decision on what to do what they child," said Mark Rogers.

This means the child may be placed on lockdown or has to wear an ankle bracelet.

Often times physical appearances may change making it difficult for investigators to track them down. But one thing they can keep up with is social media.

"We know that you just posted something yesterday. We know that you are on Facebook or whatever social media," said Lt. Joyce Dent-Fitzpatrick.

Even with this information, law enforcement on both sides of the river say they won't stop looking for clues and tips leading to the missing teen. In some cases, those reported missing will contact the police.

"They will say I'm not going to tell you where I am but this is my birth date and they give us all the information and then tell us they are not coming back," said Fitzpatrick.

But until officials can put a name with a face for the actual person missing, their case won't be closed and their names will stay on the missing person's list.

Missing children and teens are also reported to the nationwide agency Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Information about the person is put out all over the country and will remain on the site until the child is no longer in danger and found.

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