TAMPA - Tonight, there are missing children out on the streets who may never be found. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists 285 Florida children as currently missing and endangered.
The I-Team has been able to locate 16 missing children as part of an ongoing investigation. It didn't take private investigators, hours of combing through public records, or interviews with friends and family.
We found them when we discovered that many missing children have active Facebook pages. Many post where they are living, who they are with, photos, and even phone numbers. All of that information provides clues that could help bring the child to safety.
By reaching out to them on Facebook, I-Team investigator Michael George has been able to interview several missing children on the phone, online, and in person. The stories they told us raise questions about how much is being done to find them, and why they are still considered missing even after we found them so easily.
Alisha Lollis is one of Florida's missing runaways. She was reported missing in July of 2010 after she ran from a group home. St. Petersburg Police say they had contact with her earlier this year, but she is still considered missing and endangered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
We found her hiding in plain sight, living with a friend in Pinellas Park.
"What did you think when you heard from us?" asked investigator Michael George.
"I was like, wow. They found me after all this time? It was amazing," Lollis said.
Lollis recently turned 18. Because her whereabouts and safety are unknown to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, she is still considered an endangered runaway.
She told us she was safe and doing well. She bounced from house to house, never staying in one place for too long. She says she's overcome drug abuse, and she's working to get her GED. But the road has been difficult.
"Let's put it this way. I've been to like 13 different schools," Lollis said.
A 15-year old runaway from Clearwater spoke with us online.
"Are you ok? Not in any danger?" George asked.
"yes im fine not in any danger i got the street smarts to keep myself safe," she wrote back. She also told us she's not in school and doesn't have a job.
The children we located have been missing for months, and in some cases, years. We found them in just minutes by searching for them on Facebook. Some of the missing children wouldn't speak with us, but the ones who did all told us no one had tried to locate them through Facebook before.
We passed along the information we found to FDLE, police departments and sheriff's offices across Florida.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) say they do use Facebook to try and locate missing teens, as do local law enforcement agencies. But they add that teens who run away over and over again aren't always a top priority for overworked police departments.
"That's reality. You have agencies that have homicides, they have shootings, they have armed robberies, lots of priorities in the community," said Robert Lowery, executive director of the missing child division of NCMEC.
Every law enforcement agency we spoke with insisted finding runaways is a priority and they use Facebook to find them. But they don't contact them through their page, knowing that many runaways would simply block the page if they didn't want to be found.
The Clearwater Police Department says they put a greater focus on locating runaways than most police departments. They say they often monitor and communicate with missing children on Facebook.
Authorities also argue that just because we found their Facebook pages doesn't mean they'll find the child.
"What we've found is a lot of times, the information kids post is not always current, or, they're smart about it. If it's a case where they don't want to be found, maybe they're not posting exactly the correct information," said Clearwater Police Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts.
So why haven't police made contact with the children we found? The answer may come from why they ran in the first place.
Many of the missing teens who spoke with Michael George said they're running away from abuse, even rape. They said in no uncertain terms that they didn't want to be found. They believed they were better off on their own.
Alisha Lollis said she's been in hiding since facing physical abuse in her group home. A 16-year old runaway agreed to talk with us online, in the hopes that it would help us locate other missing kids.
But she also told us, "I know you're a reporter, but if you get the cops involved you're going to do a story on a 16-year old who died because you told the cops."
She wouldn't reveal her exact location. Lollis says she knows what the teen is going through.
"Is there any advice that you would have for them?" asked George.
"Go public. Don't be scared about what people could say about you or what you're going to go through," Lollis said.
believes law enforcement could do more to locate repeat runaways.
"I know that when I ran away, I wanted someone to find me. I wanted someone to care enough to go looking for me. But that never happened," Lollis said.
The I-Team is working to contact the parents of the children we located. But in some cases, the parents are harder to find than their missing children. Law enforcement tells us in at least some of the cases we uncovered, the parents lost custody of their children.
I-Team investigator Michael George will continue to search for Florida's missing children. If you have any information or a story you want the I-Team to investigator, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.