Frustration and togetherness.
These were the overarching themes of a community meeting held to address the growing concern of missing children on the Big Island.
Scores of socially distanced people filled the parking lot at the Umeke’s location under construction at Pawai Place on Wednesday evening. With a common goal of increasing awareness within the community, speakers including leaders of local organizations like the Hawaii Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Hawaii Predator Hunters aired their grievances with a perceived lack of support from police and local leadership. Dispersed among stories of personal experiences on the island and suggestions for how the community can look after one another, a pattern of common frustrations emerged.
Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas acknowledged the crowd’s frustrations with police, who were not present at the meeting, but warned against vigilantism.
“This place must remain pono,” said Villegas. “We must perpetuate the ohana lifestyle of aloha and connection and trust. We have accountability to one another.”
Various statistics show progress being made in regards to missing children; according to the Hawaii Police Department, the total number missing children reports fell from 853 in 2008 to 417 in 2019 and 152 so far this year. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports five active missing children cases on the Big Island, and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center reported a total of 35 human trafficking cases in Hawaii as a whole for 2019, down from 47 in 2018.
Despite these statistics, multiple speakers expressed distrust for official figures and traditional avenues for dealing with missing children.
“We’re fed up with going the regular routes to try to get things resolved,” said Melody Stone, founder of the Hawaii Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “I’m not a vigilante, and I don’t encourage people to do that either, but there are ways we can do this on a grassroots level.”
Another speaker, a mother named Monica, commented with concern about the rumors of collusion and alleged police involvement.
“I would like the hui to create some action steps of how we’re going to investigate these people and these systems that are in place because this is happening right under our noses, and there are people that know what’s going on,” she said. “We need to find ways to hold them accountable and figure out the facts of the situation. Right now, it’s all hearsay and rumors.”
Wednesday’s meeting appears to be just the first of many to help solve the problem of missing children. Though many in the crowd were bothered by unanswered questions, Umeke’s owner Nakoa Pabre insisted those questions would be addressed moving forward. Villegas added that local government would also become more involved.
“I take it upon myself to follow through with this capacity and to find out each and every detail, to work with the police department and the police officers I have known since hanabata days and graduating Konawaena, who know and love their daughters and their sons and their granddaughters and their grandsons in this community.” said Villegas. “…It cannot and will not continue to happen here. We stop it now.”