Editor’s note: Sophia Roach was located Aug. 22 in Baltimore City and Montgomery County Department of Police – Special Victims Investigations Division reunited her with her family.
Where is Sophia? And where are Zamya, Maiha, Evelyn, Eduardo, Shania, Yesenia, Benito, Nevaeh, Xavier, Brianna, Fernanda, Hagan, Jozlynn and Genesis?
Montgomery County parents probably don’t spend much time reading press releases from the local police department. But after my 15-year-old neighbor, Sophia Roach, went missing on July 11, I started paying attention.
Sophia was reportedly groomed and lured online. This teenage girl left home voluntarily, but she left her phone at home. I don’t know any teenage girl who would leave home for an extended period without her phone. Perhaps she was told to leave her phone behind so she couldn’t be traced. It is hard to imagine Sophia would have willingly stayed away and completely out of touch for an entire month.
Each of the other teenagers – as reflected in police department press releases – has been missing for days, weeks or months. I notice that most of them are girls of color. It is shocking to me that this isn’t being covered by major news outlets. We have an epidemic of missing teenagers.
I don’t know what has happened to any of these teenagers, but I fear that they may be in danger due to traffickers and predators.
Maryland is said to be an attractive destination for trafficking because there are multiple methods to leave the area quickly, including three local airports and inexpensive buses. There are some dangerous people out there: according to the FBI, there are 500,000 online predators active each day, many with multiple online profiles.
Children between the ages of 12 and 15 are especially susceptible to be groomed or manipulated by adults they meet online, and according to the FBI, this age group accounts for more than 50% of the victims of online exploitation.
How do these predators reach our kids? Video games and online chats are “hunting grounds” for sexual predators. Most contact begins in Internet chatrooms or through instant messaging. From there, it is easy for an online predator to pretend to be a teenager, commiserate about school, share photos and gain a teenager’s trust. Then there may be a phone call, requests for sexually explicit photos or the idea of an in-person meeting.
If your teen spends many hours online and is secretive about their online behavior, they might be, well, a typical teenager. But it could be something more.
Ok, parents, so now what? Here are a few steps you can take today to protect your child:
- Start a conversation about online safety, at home and at school. Discuss their online activity and the risks. Ask your school or your PTA to host a session on online safety. Share this article. Continue this dialogue.
- Educate yourself about the websites, software, games and apps that your child uses. Check their social media and gaming profiles and posts. Have conversations about what is appropriate to say or share. Of course, we don’t want to invade their privacy but we have a responsibility to keep them safe.
- Make sure your kids are using privacy settings to restrict access to their online profile. Many kids remove these settings to increase their numbers of social media followers, which puts them at greater risk.
- Tell your kids to be extremely wary with anyone they don’t know in real life. Most importantly, they should never make plans to meet up with someone they met online without your knowledge and supervision.
- Talk to your kids about sextortion, when a child is coerced into producing sexually explicit images or videos. Your child may think they are sending images to a potential romantic partner, but this can be a ruse: once the predator has the photo or video, he or she may demand money or make threats about sharing the images.
- Sign up to receive alerts from Montgomery County Police by visiting: https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/pol/. And support the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, (www.missingkids.org). This level of information may keep you up at night, but at least you will be more aware and prepared to keep our kids safe. Ask your elected officials what they are doing to protect our kids.
- Pray for these teenagers and support their distraught families. There may be meal trains or other ways to show support. Schools may have email listservs where support is being organized.
Finally, take a deep breath and look at how many teenagers are currently missing in Montgomery County, Maryland. The police website is the most updated source for this information. But as of today, these teenagers are all listed as missing. We can all do our part to bring them home and protect our kids.
June 21 – Zamya Santiago, a missing 14-year-old from Germantown.
June 21 – Maiha Michelle Joseph, a missing 15-year-old from Silver Spring.
June 27 – Evelyn Sanchez-Gomez, a missing 15-year-old from Aspen Hill.
July 6 – Eduardo Mendez-Rodriguez, a missing 14-year-old from Gaithersburg.
July 11- Shania Adams, a missing 13-year-old from Silver Spring.
July 12 – Yesenia Cabrera Felipe, a missing 15-year-old last seen in Silver Spring.
July 12 – Sophia Isabella Roach, a missing 15-year-old from Rockville.
July 14 – Benito Mabilo, a missing 16-year-old from Montgomery Village.
July 18 – Nevaeh Washington, a missing 15-year-old last seen in Silver Spring.
July 18 – Xavier Beltran, a missing 15-year-old last seen in Rockville.
Aug. 1 – Brianna Powers, a missing 17-year-old last seen in Germantown.
Aug. 2 – Fernanda Azevedo De Silva, a missing 15-year-old from Germantown.
Aug. 4 – Hagan Rousseau, a missing 16-year-old last seen in Silver Spring.
Aug. 8 – Jozlynn Sanderson, a missing 16-year-old from Burtonsville.
Aug. 8 – Genesis Chavez, a missing 14-year-old from Aspen Hill.
Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied, from North Bethesda, is the mother of three teenagers.
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