Last June, 16-year-old Hailey Burns walked out of her home in Charlotte, N.C., leaving behind a distraught and frantic family who searched for her for the last 12 months.
Hailey, who was found alive this week in Georgia in the home of 31-year-old Michael Wysolovski, a man she allegedly met online, was among the 465,676 cases of missing children reported to the FBI in 2016, a number that has decreased significantly over the past 10 years. There were 662,228 reported cases in 2006.
The vast majority of missing children are runaways, said Nancy McBride, the executive director of Florida Outreach at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). In 2016, NCMEC worked with law enforcement and families on more than 20,500 cases of missing young people — 90% were cases of runaways.
One of the disturbing aspects in cases of missing kids, experts say, is the number who are lured away through technology.
Found one year later:
At the time of her disappearance, Hailey’s family said they had tried to limit their daughter’s use of computers after they discovered she’d been talking to strangers online. Hailey, now 17, did not even have a cellphone, they said, but they thought she was still communicating with someone and had left to meet with him.
“(Technology) has great benefits and some potential risks,” McBride said. “It’s important to stay plugged into their lives.”
David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said parents should work on having a strong relationship with their children. “When relationships deteriorate with kids . . . dangers really come into play,” he said.
When the child's relationship with their parents isn’t strong, their communication breaks down and that makes the child vulnerable to online predators, McBride said.
A good relationship is important for communication, which is important for developing trust, she said. “If something is going on, it’s important for parents to be able to tell their kids: ‘If someone approaches you and makes you feel uncomfortable, you can come to me.’ Then they can work to prevent a situation.”
She doesn’t think cutting the child off from social media is the answer. “Kids are going to do it anyway,” she said.
“Talk it out with them,” she said. “Get your kids to show them where they like to go (online). Talk to them about how the dangers in the virtual world can translate into the real world.”
Technology and social media have their protective elements, too, Finkelhor said.
Abductions are rare, he said, but if such cases do come up, technology can be helpful. For instance, cellphones can be used to help locate children, he noted. And McBride said NCMEC works with law enforcement to harness the power of social media tools such as Twitter to get more eyes looking out for missing persons.
However, both agree the best safeguard is a strong home environment.
“The best thing parents can do is to have a good relationship with their kids,” Finkelhor said.