NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — An average of 500 to 600 kids under the age of 18 go missing each month in Tennessee, many due to parental abductions or runaways, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Their smiling faces circulate across social media and on television screens as their parents wait for answers. The wait can be agonizing, but with today’s technology, it’s often not long before the child is found, said Shelly Smitherman, TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge.
“A lot of times historically, it’s the public that has led to the safe resolve of a case,” Smitherman said. “It just takes that one person to see that story or see that face and remember something or realize that they were present or in the area on the day that child disappeared.”
As the coordinator of the state’s AMBER Alert program, Smitherman said social media and other advancements in technology have vastly increased the number of resolved missing child cases, as well as the speed in which they are found. When a child is missing, those seconds matter.
“It’s sad, but true. The longer it takes for a case to be resolved, or a child to be found, your chances increase that they may be found deceased or harmed,” Smitherman said. “So, with technology, we’re able to push it out and get them back immediately.”
What happens when a child is reported missing?
The TBI works with local and state law enforcement, as well as national organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), to share information, offer investigative support and issue alerts in some of the most serious cases.
“I work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on a pretty much daily basis,” Smitherman said. “They also are notified on their level. On some of our older (cases), they do some of the age progression photos for us.”
Anytime a child goes missing their information is entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which serves as a central database for tracking crime-related information. Law enforcement also notifies the TBI, especially when a case meets criteria for an alert.
The TBI is the only agency in the state that can issue an AMBER Alert. While each state has different criteria for alerts for missing individuals, an AMBER Alert, is normally reserved for cases in which law enforcement believes the child is in imminent danger.
As of Dec. 1, there were six AMBER Alerts still active in Tennessee. Some of the children, like 4-month-old Zaylee Grace Fryar, of Millersville, and 7-year-old Gage Daniel and 9-year-old Chloie Leverette, two siblings from Unionville, have been missing for a decade now.
“Whenever we issue an AMBER Alert, those children will remain an AMBER Alert until we’ve located them, regardless of what the circumstances might be,” Smitherman said. “Even if they’re believed to be deceased, we don’t stop looking.”
The TBI continues to maintain a list of unsolved missing child cases, even after they’ve turned 18. Some of the oldest cases date back as far as the 1980’s. Although less likely to receive tips in those cases, Smitherman said it’s still vital to keep them in the spotlight.
Anytime those cases are revived, even if just in a social media post or a brief news story, Smitherman said the TBI tends to get new tips. All new information is followed up on, whether it leads to a break in the case or another dead end.
“Even though they’re adults now, we don’t stop putting it out there. It’s just as important for the families. They are always holding out hope to find the kid, and so are we,” she said. “There’s always hope that they’re alive and they will be found out there.”
Recent cases that have been successfully resolved
Often, it just takes one person in the right place at the right time. In November last year, it was a mother who recognized two children from a social media post. The woman helped reunite Noah and Amber Clare, who were missing from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, with their parents.
According to police, Noah’s father is believed to have left Kentucky with the two children around Nov. 5, 2021. He was supposed to drop his son off in Gallatin, but never arrived. The trio was found nearly two weeks later just outside of San Clemente, California.
“It was a mother taking her child to school that morning that saw the alert that had been posted by the local law enforcement agency,” Smitherman said. “That’s what led to the safe recovery. That’s a big one from recent that is still talked about today.”
In older cases, Smitherman said advancements in DNA technology and collaboration between state and national agencies have also assisted in successful resolutions.
In August, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) helped identify skeletal remains found in Campbell County as a 15-year-old girl who went missing from Lafayette, Indiana nearly four decades ago.
A DNA profile was developed for the girl and entered into CODIS, as well as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in 2007 in hopes that she would eventually be identified.
Scientists conducting forensic genetic genealogy testing identified her as Tracy Sue Walker earlier this year after they found a match with a possible relative. They then confirmed the match after testing further familial DNA standards.
“That was a big case this year, and that’s just with the improvement of technology and DNA profiles, having that exist,” Smitherman said. “And CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, that allows information sharing between states, that plays a huge role in identifying victims.”
Steps parents can take before emergencies strike
With all of the new technology and resources arising, Smitherman said one of the biggest takeaways from successful resolutions to cases is still to “never give up hope.” Parents can also take action in order to be prepared should they ever face a similar emergency.
When in a panic, Smitherman said it can sometimes be difficult for parents to remember simple details. The TBI launched a new resource last year called the “TN KidKit” to help parents document key details about their children such as photographs and identifying factors.
“It’s so important to have a current photograph of your child easily accessible,” Smitherman said. “The difficulty sometimes in getting an alert out is trying to find a photo of a missing child. It seems common, like you would have those, but that is something we face sometimes.”
The document can be printed or digitally stored to share with authorities in an emergency. Smitherman also suggests parents talk to their children about their activity online and maintain an open line of communication about safety and the people in their lives.
“Talk to them about it. Just in a way, because you care about them,” she said. “And know what they’re doing, know who they’re talking to. It’s so important to have that relationship with your child in the event that something happens.”
The TN KidKit and information about missing children in Tennessee, including full lists of children who still need to be located, can be found by clicking here. To submit a tip regarding a missing child, contact the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.
“As far as the public goes, I can’t thank them enough for their help. Everyone stops what they’re doing when we issue an alert and they want to assist, and they’re paying attention,” Smitherman said. “We can’t do this job without the public.”