There have been at least 936 reported cases of missing children in Montgomery County so far this year, according to county police. While 921 have been recovered, 15 are still missing.
Captain Jeff Bunge, director of MCPD’s Special Victims Investigation Division, said nine of the children have been missing for less than 30 days, and six have been missing for more than 30 days, during a presentation to the Montgomery County Council’s public safety and education and culture committees on Monday. On average, about 800 children are reported missing each year in the county. Police did not provide a theory about why this year’s numbers were higher.
Many missing children’s cases are instances where teens have run away from home, and 56% of runaways this year were repeat runaways, according to Assistant Chief Nicholas Augustine, who heads MCPD’s Investigative Services Bureau.
“The vast majority of what we have with runaways are what we traditionally think of as a runaway–some type of family issue whether it’s an argument with mom or dad, they don’t want to go to school tomorrow so, they run away,” Bunge said. “Sometimes it’s a blossoming romantic relationship between kids and they want to go out on a date and mom and dad don’t want that. So that’s primarily what we have. We don’t have a lot of nefarious activity. We don’t have kidnappings. We don’t have a lot of movie type things that go on.”
Bunge said he is not aware of any missing children who were victims of human trafficking in 2023.
Female children are reported missing slightly more than male children, at 52% of cases. Black children make up the highest percentage of missing children’s cases, at 46%. Hispanic children make up 32% of cases, white children make up 20% of cases and Asian children make up 2% of cases, according to a Nov. 8 MCPD report.
The report analyzed data from missing children’s cases in the county from 2018-2023.
Augustine said sometimes teens who run away are missing strong family connections at home and may become involved in gang activity. Eight to 10 open runaway cases this summer involved fentanyl use. He and Bunge said while the department works with community partners including Montgomery County Public Schools, the county needs to create a better system of resources to help runaways and their families, and that some runaways may need additional support outside their family if the family is not supportive.
“We haven’t found that one magic resource or several resources that have been able to help these repeat runways,” Bunge said.
Bunge said he is incredibly impressed with how officers in the department have worked to connect with runaways.
“We have actually created bonds with a lot of these runaways where we say, ‘hey, listen, we don’t want you to run away again, but if you do, here’s my number. Call me, text me, let me know, so at least I have contact with you.’ Then we can tell the parent ‘Little Johnny has reached out, we know that they ran away. We’re going to do what we can to bring them home to you,’” Bunge said.
Another challenge the officers reported was working on unaccompanied minors cases, because investigators typically have very little information about the child – sometimes not even a photograph. Often these are children who are undocumented immigrants. Three of the children who have currently been missing for more than 30 days are considered unaccompanied minors, Augustine said. One of those children has been missing since 2022.
“I’m sure there’s a lot more missing unaccompanied minors out there that have not been reported to us,” Augustine said. “They often leave very quickly with little footprint in Montgomery County. And whether they’re being reported to us or not, that is a major concern that affects all of our divisions.”
Most missing persons cases in the county are not considered criminal, according to Captain Marc Erme, Director Criminal Investigative Division, and legally, that can prevent police from getting involved in certain ways. They may not have a subpoena or warrant to do certain searches, he said.
That’s where social media has been an important and successful tool in getting out the word about missing persons cases, Erme said. The department has received many tips from the public after viewing a post about a missing person on a social media site that have led to finding the missing person, Erme said.
When it comes to children, Bunge said a successful tactic has been working with MCPS to identify friends of the missing child and see what they can find out.
“We ask the [friends], ‘hey, can you please text your friend and let them know that they’re not in trouble? We just want to make sure that they’re OK. We want to bring them home,’” Bunge said.
While there are fewer missing adult cases – Erme said there have been around 230 cases this year – officers still said there is a lack of adequate alert systems when it comes to “critical missing adults” cases where the missing person has Alzheimer’s, dementia or a cognitive disability.
In locating Rashawn Williams, a nonverbal man with Down syndrome who went missing last month, there was no specified widespread alert system to notify the public of the case. While the county police were able to send out emails to media, Williams’ case didn’t qualify as a Silver Alert, which applies to at-risk missing adults, or an Amber Alert, which applies to children, because both alert systems are to identify missing persons who are in a vehicle, which Williams was not. The major crimes unit wants to work with county officials to develop a large-scale alert system for special cases like Williams’ to get as many eyes on the situation as possible.
Information on each of the currently missing children and adults and how to report tips is available on the county’s website.