Sex trafficking and drug dangers lurk for missing and runaway youth

Always Investigating

There’s a growing concern on the Big Island about the number of missing children, and while most are runaways, that doesn’t mean they’re not in danger. Always Investigating explains the link to sex trafficking and drugs.

The Hawaii County Council asked police and prosecutors to come before them today worried about what’s perceived to be an increasing trend in missing children. Law Enforcement officials say it’s been a problem for years, and the numbers are lower so far in 2020.

It’s the talk of the island: What’s happening with all these missing children on Hawaii Island? Hawaii County Police put out bulletin after bulletin. It caught the eye of Kekai Coakley as he was scrolling through Facebook, where it’s the hot topic on a variety of community watchdog pages too.

“I was reading all these comments about missing children, about concerns,” Coakley said. “I just made a page and hoped for the best.”

He launched the Facebook group called Big Island Missing Children on Friday, and by today it got its 1,000th member.

“It kind of got my attention that this is an ongoing problem,” Coakley said, “and maybe through social media, maybe because it’s announced more, we’re being more concerned about it.”

The Hawaii County Council called on police and prosecutors to testify at a hearing Tuesday morning, to address what the agenda called the “trend of increased missing children in the County of Hawaii.”

“At any given time, we could have eight to 15 runaways,” Hawaii County Police Lt. Sando Finkey told the council, “and that’s just the amount of runaways which have come forward for continuing investigation in my section.”

Police say the numbers aren’t up, they’re actually down, from a peak of 850 runaway cases a year in 2008 to 479 in 2017, 477 in 2018, and 417 in 2019. January to June 2020 has seen 150 cases, down slightly from 162 in the same period last year.

In some cases, the same children repeatedly runaway Finkey said.

“In the past month we’ve already had three who we’ve picked up and within 48 hours they’ve run away again,” he said. “Some of these kids are in foster care. Some are in interim care.”

Police say any child is entered into a national database within 2 hours of being reported missing, and that should prevent them leaving the island, being taken away. But even on the island, prosecutors say these youth are ending up in very dangerous situations including sex trafficking.

“Oftentimes you’ll have kids who are running away that will get involved with drugs and then maybe trade sex for food, for housing or other things, and that’s human trafficking,” explained Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth. “We don’t have a lot of victims that report they’ve been sex trafficked, and in fact a lot of these runaways that go through this don’t even see themselves as being sex trafficked.”

Roth said the victims themselves are often reluctant to come forward.

“We have people that have reported there are a lot of things going on but it’s very hard to get specific,” Roth said, “where they’re happening, who is involved, so if people have that information we highly recommend they share that information with the police.”

“We have charged out two separate adults within the past 6 months with regard to sexual assault investigations related to runaway minors,” Finkey said. They are John Allen Wager, charged in January 2020, and Robert Alan Kinoshita, charged last month. In both cases they face drug and sex assault charges against minors.

Law enforcement says abductions are not common.

“We don’t see a lot of kids that are ‘boogeyman snatched.’ They’re not being taken away,” Roth said. “We may not be seeing a lot of those cases, but we have seen them, and they do exist. I’m not saying they don’t exist whatsoever, they’re just not at the same level as what people are imagining going on. Same thing with human trafficking, we’re not seeing the level you’ll see on social media.”

Always Investigating asked Roth: Just because a kid wasn’t snatched by a stranger doesn’t mean they’re in less danger, right?

“That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right,” Roth said. “If a runaway comes into contact with a bad actor, it’s just as bad as them getting snatched up off the street.”

Among the solutions are pooling community resources and attention toward protecting youth.

“Kids who have adverse childhood experiences like domestic violence are much more likely to be runaways, they’re much more likely to be people involved with suicide, we have a huge suicide problem in this state,” Roth said. “They’re much more likely to be involved with drugs and that leads to other things such as homelessness.”

Police say parents and guardians need to pay attention, too.

“This starts in the home,” Finkey said. “We want parents to talk to their kids candidly about what can happen if they run away for prolonged periods of time, even if they run away for a night. We want them to know what their kids are doing on social media, who their friends are, what type of list of different apps parents should be looking out for.”

Whatever has driven children to leave their homes, those in the community say they’ll keep raising their voices and offering their help. A sign-waving event on Father’s Day in Hilo is among the upcoming outreach efforts.

“There might be a lot of internal battles within that person and they can’t go through that struggle alone and I’d really like those kids to know we’re here for them,” Coakley said. “We want them to know that they’re loved. I hope for the best. I’m glad the county council brought it up and that we’re all working together to find a solution.”

Hawaii County puts out a press release about every missing child so their numbers get a lot of attention. Hawaii County Police post their news releases here.

These are links to other statewide and national missing-child and runaway websites:

Missing Child Center Hawaii

State of Hawaii DHS Missing Children database

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Q&A with State Department of Human Services division of Child Welfare, specific to children in the CWS or foster system:

Is there an increase of runaways and missing children this year? No, it’s been the same. Missing Child Center Hawaii (a division of the state Department of the Attorney General) reports the same thing.

Are the teens leaving the homes due to crisis? There are many factors as to why the teens run, because they do not want to be in placement or want to be with their family or friends.

How often does the Missing Children page get updated? The policy is to update the website whenever there is a run episode or a recovery episode. Please note that DHS and MCCH share the missing children website/page and not all of the children are necessarily receiving services under DHS.

How long does it take from report to law enforcement to it gets to the Missing Children page? Once a youth runs from foster care, the social worker is to contact 911, make a police report, fill out the CWS Missing child profile, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)  and then have the designee add the info onto the Missing Children page.  This is all to be done as soon as a youth runs.

Is the page updated when the youth is found? Yes, the update happens after the youth has been found.

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