BOSTON — When teenager Candice Sharp was dropped off to work at Pizza Hut in Edwardsville, Ill., on March 12, she had no intention of grating cheese or taking pizza orders. Across the street, waiting for her in a van was a smooth-talking man she knew, a convicted felon on probation.
Candice went in one door and out another, crossed the street and climbed in the van. For the next 2-1/2 months she was a runaway, drifting in a transient world of strangers, drugs, and furtive travel.
She also became a statistic, one of an estimated 655,000 children a year in the United States who run away from home. Most return a day or two later, but thousands like Candice - struggling with few friends in high school, and eventually succumbing to substance abuse - stay away and find themselves exploited by those who are streetwise and threatening.
It was for these reasons that Candice's mother, Trina Pace, mounted a one-woman blitz through the world of law enforcement and missing children agencies, determined to find her troubled daughter.
Her experience, while not typical, was frustrating but ultimately successful through the effort of a new agency, Safe Kids International based in New Jersey. The agency uses an extensive network of sources to disseminate information about missing children, a common method among such agencies. An apartment owner in Arkansas, having seen a Safe Kids International flyer, spotted Candice and contacted the police.
But Ms. Pace, a professional photographer and divorce, contends that few agencies offered substantial, consistent help over the 21/2 month period.
"I signed up with around 15 runaway agencies," she says of her aggressive effort on the Internet, by phone, and person to person. "You are on your own because runaways are a low priority for the police," she says, "and my experience in contacting the children's agencies was a slow process. Basically they did very little. I was doing the investigating myself."
Usually when a child bolts from home the reasons have been slowly building in a family. "When looking at a runaway case," says Georgia Hilgeman, executive director and founder of Vanished Children's Alliance, "we know that kids sometimes run away for good reasons. There may be something happening in the family that is pushing them out. So we look at the family too."
But unlike parents who reject their children, many caring parents often panic, and don't know where to turn. Understandably, they want to know that someone has launched a search immediately.
"Runaways do have the lowest priority among missing kids with law enforcement," says Ms. Hilgeman. "And there are legitimate reasons why. The police can't really detain them. If they take them to a shelter, even before the paperwork is done, the kids are out the back door."
In addition, many parents call the police when a child is missing for 15 minutes and authorities can't respond to even a small number of such calls because most children are found right away.
In Pace's sudden realization of not knowing what to do, she turned first to the police. "They said, 'Well, she'll call you,' " she says. "I would call the police every day, and ask if they found out anything new, and did they interview the persons whose names I sent to them?"
When a child is reported by the police to be missing, by law the name is entered into the computer at the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Over 17,000 law-enforcement agencies have "read" access to the center's computer.
"Candice was reported missing on March 12, and the call to put her name in came to NCIC on the 23rd," says Ben Ermini, director of the Missing Children Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "A few weeks later the case was certified [that she was missing] and up on our Web site. Her photo was being distributed through the national poster program, which includes being posted at many Wal-Mart stores in the Midwest."
Whether or not Pace knew this is in question. "I had a missing child poster made so I could send it electronically," she says, "None of the runaway organizations helped me, not so much as a phone call. In some cases I had to have papers notarized [that I sent to them]. And do you know how long it takes to download hundreds of missing children photos grouped on one site?"
In checking the records at the Vanished Children's Alliance, Hilgeman says, "There was a lot of e-mail communication between [Pace] and our caseworker, and actually [Pace] did not send in the paperwork until April 19. The child had already been missing for a month."
But Pace was exploring all avenues from the day Candice was missing on March 12. "It was two months before I found out I could go to the courthouse and get the young man's record and a photo of him," she says. "He was on restricted probation and his parole office didn't know he was missing until we called him."
Not until Pace contacted Safe Kids International did she get the response she wanted. "They interviewed me immediately," she says, "Not only did they give me moral support but the fact that they could get the information out on the Internet is so essential. They also made a poster offering a reward."
Joe Florentine, one of the founders of Safe Kids International in Spring Lake, N.J., says they have accumulated "about 60,000 points of contact" that receive information sent from Safe Kids about missing children.
"We hope to get to 100,000 to expand our Internet emergency broadcast system so that when a child is missing," he says, "we can immediately post the child's information, photo, and details and broadcast it geographically to hundreds of outlets like bus terminals, law enforcement, schools, media, hospitals, and churches."
But as all missing children's agencies know, because of costs, the hand-held treatment that helped Pace find her daughter is hard to sustain.
"We are small, and that's a dilemma we are in right now," Mr. Florentine says of his organization that is so far privately funded. "Our dream is that we will be funded enough to have a team of investigators so that when a kid is abducted we can immediately go into action with the police."
After returning home, Candice was hospitalized briefly, and is now in counseling. For parents faced with a runaway child, Pace says, "Be persistent. Stay with the runaway organizations. If they don't call you, call them a hundred times. Sitting around and thinking the police are helping you is an incorrect assumption."
National Runaway Switchboard
Vanished Children's Alliance
Safe Kids International
The Lost Child Emergency Broadcast System
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society