When Ohio State University student Reagan Tokes went missing in February, she became one of the hundreds of people that go missing in Ohio every year.
Tokes’ case ultimately ended tragically with her death. However, the vast majority of missing people — 97 percent of those reported missing in 2015 — are ultimately recovered safely within a few days, according to a report from the Ohio attorney general. This success rate is mainly due to the amount of effort that now goes into investigating missing persons cases, with the help of public alerts and involvement.
Currently, 834 missing people are listed on the Ohio attorney general’s website, and according to the report, 23,466 persons were reported missing in Ohio in 2015. Out of all of these cases, 18,099 involved children.
Most missing children in Ohio are runaways, and only a few actual abductions are reported in Ohio every year, Powell Chief of Police Gary Vest said. Almost all of these children, particularly runaways, eventually come home. Still, plenty of effort is poured into investigations of missing children, and for good reason.
“In a child abduction case, every minute that that child is missing is critical. Seventy percent of the children that are murdered in abductions are killed within the first three hours,” Vest said. “So obviously when a child is taken, every hour is important.”
Investigations into a missing child usually begin with informing neighboring law enforcement agencies and speaking with the child’s family and the local community. If the case is unresolved after 30 days, law enforcement can compare the DNA of the missing person to unidentified remains, said Cynthia Peterman, director of intelligence for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. For cases that extend into the future, BCI forensic artists can age progress a missing person.
Aside from basic protocol, a more in-depth method of locating missing children is an Amber Alert. These alerts are certainly effective – out of 13 alerts issued in 2015, 12 of the children were recovered safely.
However, Vest points out there are a few basic requirements for a missing child case to warrant an Amber Alert. A child must be 17 or younger and face a reasonable risk of harm, and the public must have something to look for, often a description of the person or vehicle that may have taken the child.
An alert is issued if these requirements are met, reaching all neighboring law enforcement agencies and federal agencies like the FBI. It also sends out an emergency alert message to all local cell phones. Similarly, an Endangered Missing Child Alert provides a radio broadcast to nearby law enforcement agencies and also uses notification systems to inform the public.
Of course, not all people that go missing are 17 or younger, and missing adults are often more difficult to investigate, Peterman said.
“Adult cases can be more difficult because adults are free to leave if they so choose. Also, missing adults with risky lifestyles are sometimes not reported missing as quickly as others,” Peterman said. “Children have adult guardians and society has expectations for children that can assist law enforcement in their cases. For instance, school attendance can help us establish a pattern of behavior for the child.”
However, the Ohio attorney general’s Best Protocol for Law Enforcement states investigations into missing adults only typically occur if there is enough to show that an adult has a physical or mental disability at the time of their disappearance, they may be in danger, or that their disappearance was not voluntary. A missing adult alert can also be issued, but in such a case, the person must be mentally impaired or over the age of 65.
Peterman said such wide-spread reports, and often the increased public intervention that comes with them, has helped increase the effectiveness of missing people’s investigations of the last several years.
“The wide use of cellphones and social media in our society can assist law enforcement in missing persons cases,” she said. “Cell phone records and social media posts can aid in developing behaviors, friends, and relationships of missing persons or abduction suspects. It also allows us to broadcast alerts across the state, right into the hands of every cell phone user.”
However, Vest said while investigations are evolving, most current missing persons investigations, particularly those involving children, are still based on past cases.
“We base all our investigations on children that have actually been abducted. You talk to people and families that have been through this to see what worked and what didn’t so you can be best prepared if something goes wrong,” Vest said. “That’s all we’re doing, we’re just trying to be prepared. We may not have an abduction in our community, in our county for the next several years, we have to be prepared, because that’s not the time to learn.”
Of course, another type of endangered people in Ohio are the hundreds of citizens that currently inducted into human trafficking.
Bryttani Barker, the anti-human trafficking coordinator at the Ohio Salvation Army, said these people are sometimes missing and sometimes simply using trafficking as a way to support themselves in their normal lives. However, trafficking is still a pressing issue within the state, and for a few groups in particular.
An Ohio Attorney General Report shows that both boys and girls are be brought into the trafficking system, can be as young as 12 or 13 and may in the system for several years. Most trafficking victims also have a low education level – a GED or less – and are usually unemployed.
However, although there has been recent concern about a possible influx of trafficking cases in Ohio, this may be less about an actual increase in trafficking and more about an increase in anti-trafficking resources.
“We’re doing a great job of awareness and outreach of what human trafficking is. So when people say, ‘I can’t believe Ohio is so far up the list in trafficking,’ it doesn’t mean it’s not happening in Utah. It just means that Utah isn’t doing as much awareness as we are,” Barker said. “We’re lucky to have a governor and a senator that are supporting different types of outreach or have specific funding to eradicate human trafficking, so that helps as well.”
Barker said although reporting the exact number of trafficking cases may be difficult, organizations such as The Salvation Army are already pouring more resources into identifying and talking to victims. They are also focusing on examining locations that are often fronts for trafficking operations, like construction sites, agricultural areas, restaurants, nail salons and massage parlors.
The Salvation Army is currently working with other service providers to offer different sorts of outreach to victims, such as management and detox services for drug abuse, as well as bringing more mainstream awareness to the issue of trafficking, Barker said.
“Once we break down the stigma that ‘Oh, trafficking isn’t happening here, it’s happening in a third world country, not in my backyard,’ then people are going to see it more,” she said.
Of course, even with careful law enforcement regulations and resources at hand, thousands still go missing or fall into trafficking in Ohio every year, and more cases go unreported. But although the public may focus on the cases that go unsolved or end in tragedy, ongoing fast reactions, public alerts and mainstream education make the future of endangered people in Ohio look more promising.
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