There’s light at the end of the tunnel for Hawai‘i’s missing keiki.
The number is staggering: 4,000. That’s how many children across the state go missing every year. “That’s if you include runaways,” says Charlene Takeno, administrator for Missing Child Center-Hawaii (MCCH). “Some are what we call chronic runners—they come back one day and leave the next, but even if we don’t count chronic runners, it’s still a high number.”
The center, which functions under the Department of the Attorney General, is up against shadowy cases of kidnapped youth and naive runaways who are prostituted or trafficked for sex.
“We don’t go out and do the physical searching,” notes Takeno, “but we do searches on databases and keep in touch with the families, if they’re old cases. For new cases, we put out posters to get the word out. Hawai‘i is so small so we’re lucky. We get a lot of calls, especially with people recognizing our runaway kids.”
The center also does outreach, like their Keiki I.D. program, where they collect height, weight and other physical characteristics of children under 18, so if a child were to go missing, that information would be available to law enforcement.
MCCH’s close relationship with law enforcement includes providing the Honolulu Police Department with scent-tracking dogs. The capable canine they provided years ago was adept at sniffing out missing children, lost elderly and escaped criminals, and even did some tracking work on the side for the fire department. Annie is retiring now and the Missing Child Center, in conjunction with Friends of the Missing Child Center-Hawaii (www.missingkidshawaii.org), has just found a new furry helper to take her place. They have also provided a scent dog for Big Island police, and the Maui Police Department recently requested a tracking dog of their own.
“Friends of” is a private organization that provides fundraising support, to help with everything from scent-tracking dogs to funds for children who were abducted and have health care needs. They also go to schools and educate teachers and children on issues surrounding child abduction.
“I’m from a large family and I thought about my family or my friends’ children—if the children were abducted what would the families do?” said board member and fundraising chair J.R. Buenconsejo of his initial desire to get involved. “We help reunite families and we help with the funding of projects to bring awareness. The most rewarding part of my job is knowing we can make a difference and help protect the children of Hawai‘i.
“But we still have ways to go,” notes Buenconsejo, describing the battle with social media and online predators who “know just the right thing to say to a child” that can lead to a harmful situation. He adds that his introduction to MCCH was at a fundraiser: “I thought, ‘Wow, is this all they can raise for such an important issue here in Hawai‘i?’ We are not an organization that big companies think of when they do their annual funding, so we have to beg and ask. It’s tough.”
Every so often something astounding happens that tugs at the heartstrings and reinvigorates those who have dedicated their lives to Hawai‘i’s missing keiki. Take for instance the case of a 6-month-old boy who went missing in 1977. His mother had taken him for a walk in Hau‘ula and never returned home. Police were notified, fliers were passed out and the infant’s father searched the island desperately for over a year.
Then, just last year, an email arrived at the office of the MCCH.
“It was from a man who was 35,” recounts Takeno. “He had looked on our website and saw a picture of a missing boy. He contacted us and said ‘I think this is me.'”
DNA was acquired from the missing boy’s dad and tested against the anxious, but inquisitive Steve Carter. It was a match!
Piecing the puzzle of his past together, Carter discovered that while under his mother’s care, he had been placed in an orphanage and adopted three years later by the kind family who raised him. Carter, who now lives in Philadelphia, has since regained contact with his father and a maternal half-sister, though his mother has never been found.
“I got to meet Steve Carter and his adoptive parents in April,” says Takeno. “It was really nice. That’s what keeps me going—helping families, finding the kids, or at least giving families hope.”