Police: No increasing trend in missing kids

Police representatives reassured the County Council on Tuesday that there is not an increasing trend of child abductions on the Big Island.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on Public Safety, Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder requested a presentation by the Hawaii Police Department about a perceived uptick in missing child cases on the island.

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Although in-person council meetings are still impossible because of COVID-19 safety measures, more than a dozen members of the public remotely testified to voice their concerns about potential child sex trafficking, among other issues.

However, Lt. Sandor Finkey of the police department’s Juvenile Aid Section said the county has consistently seen the number of missing child reports decrease during the past several years.

County Prosecutor Mitch Roth told council members that there were 853 missing child reports in the county in 2008. By comparison, Finkey said, there were only 417 such reports in 2019 and only 152 this year so far.

The reason for a perceived increase in cases recently is likely because the department increased its efficiency in notifying the public about a missing child, Finkey said.

Crucially, Finkey said, most missing child reports are primarily runaways, most of whom are found and returned to their parents or guardians.

“There are a lot of reasons for a child to run away,” Finkey said. “There could be abuse or trauma at home, or sometimes they want to be with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes they tell us why they ran away, but sometimes they don’t.”

While Finkey acknowledged runaways face dangers, he added police notifications about missing children do not mention if the child is a runaway because the public tends to be less responsive to those cases.

However, Finkey also said investigations of runaways will look into the child’s home life to try to determine whether the child is being abused by a parent or guardian, so as not to return the child to a bad situation.

When a child is reported missing, the police department organizes an islandwide lookout and puts out alerts if the child’s guardians consent to sharing photos. Missing children younger than 14 years old also are referred to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which puts out its own notices.

Finkey said the only active missing child case on the island is that of Benny Rapoza, a 6-year-old nonverbal autistic child who went missing from a home in Keaukaha last December.

However, he added that some cases have not technically been closed because the police can only close a missing child case upon directly contacting the child — at least two runaways were reported safe by their guardians, but the police have not yet been able to contact the children, he said.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung mentioned during the meeting that, in his experience, the vast majority of runaway cases involve Child Protective Services, with which he has closely worked since 1987.

Children with unstable home lives and living in foster care are, he said, liable to run away more frequently for no particularly sinister reason.

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Finkey said the police department has received no credible evidence for a child kidnapping ring on the island, contrary to several testifiers who insisted such an organization exists.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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