GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — It’s a warm day, the sun is shining, you and your family are enjoying a weekend outdoors. You look away only for a moment to get a snack or sunscreen out of your bag, and when you look up — your child is nowhere to be seen.
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and it can happen anywhere, at any time.
Or perhaps you had an argument with your older child —they were out after curfew, or had been getting poor grades recently. When you wake up the next morning, you find that they aren’t in their room.
According to Coconino County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), these are the two most likely causes of missing children in the county — runaway juveniles and children who simply get lost.
A spokesperson for the CCSO said frequently cases of missing children turn out to be miscommunication between parents and their children.
“A lot of times, a child will get off at the wrong bus stop, or stay after school for an extracurricular activity, or fail to meet their parents at the right time,” she said.
Commander Rex Gilliland, who has been in law enforcement in northern Arizona for more than 30 years, said the department handles all reports of missing children urgently, and stressed the need for parents or guardians to let the department know their child is missing as soon as possible.
The state of Arizona has never had a waiting period for filing a missing persons report, and Gilliland said his department would rather respond quickly.
“In these cases, time is of the essence,” he said. “We would rather respond and get moving out that way, than have to play catch up several hours later.”
Most of the time, Gilliland said the cases are resolved quickly.
“Most of them are teenagers who take off from home for a variety of reasons, and we find and recover those kids quickly, because most stay local,” he said.
Gilliland also said teens living in group homes around the county sometimes walk away, but are also recovered quickly.
When the report is taken, the CCSO investigates before adding the child to an online database, such as the new missing child website created by the Arizona Department of Public Safety or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Gilliland said the department considers whether or not the child has a history of running away. If officers can’t locate the child in a day or two, their photo and vital information is uploaded into one or both of the databases, as well as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.
If law enforcement makes contact with a person listed in one of these databases, even if they are no longer juveniles, Gilliland informs family members that their loved one has been found.
In cases of juveniles who have run away because of allegations of abuse or neglect, Gilliland said they are placed in a foster home or group home until their claims can be investigated.
Gilliland said that because of the rural nature of much of the county, children may get lost wandering off trail or away from campsites. Most are found alive and well by CCSO search and rescue teams.
While runaways and lost children account for the majority of Coconino County’s missing, Gilliland said there are infrequent cases of abduction, and it’s something the department takes very seriously.
“Any of us in law enforcement are concerned that they may wind up as victims of human trafficking,” he said. “We’re keenly aware of it here. It does happen, but not as frequently as in larger cities. When we have discovered human trafficking victims in the area, we haven’t found any minors.”
Like the CCSO, Grand Canyon law enforcement rangers treat every missing child case as a worst scenario.
As one of the country’s most-visited national parks, Grand Canyon is well known as a family friendly destination for camping, hiking and outdoor recreation. With nearly 6 million visitors coming in and out of the park each year, Chief Ranger Matt Vandzura said the park generally treats cases of missing children as abductions early on.
Vandzura said lost children behave differently than lost adults, and rangers take into account the age of the child when considering the urgency of the search. He said rangers also thoroughly investigate the circumstances, including questioning family members.
“In cases where we suspect abduction, we establish a perimeter, usually park entrances, and begin voluntary outbound vehicle checks,” he said. “We can and have issued AMBER Alerts through the statewide system.”
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