Conference raises awareness ahead of National Missing Children’s Day

By Brenda Flanagan

“I was scared. I didn’t know what to do,” said victim Ashley Aguilar.

Aguilar told her story to folks at this meeting about missing and exploited children. It was acted out on stage how her abusive boyfriend threatened her family and forced her to leave New Jersey when she was just 17. Aguilar says he took her to a house in Kentucky.

“You would see women being put in a room to be drugged. There was heroin everywhere … and there was numerous times while I was there that I got beaten,” she said.

Aguilar says she escaped when she called her mom who drove down to get her. Many others never get the nerve or the chance.

“It’s more common than we think, unfortunately,” said Priscilla Rodriguez.

Rodriguez of Behavioral Crossroads says Aguilar, like many victims, met her abuser online.

“The guy messaged her through Facebook, was very persistent and she was naive and responded. Want to meet up? Started asking questions, started baiting her and from there it was little by little controlling her life and her mind,” said Rodriguez.

She urged parents and friends at this meeting — hosted by Stockton University in Atlantic City — to pay more attention to teens’ online behavior. Here, activists patrol neighborhoods where one frantic father reported his daughter missing. They found her the same day.

“Called the father back and told the father where his daughter was, the car she was in, license plate number of individual, went out to reach out and call the police, I’m like that fast. Again, if you’re not in the community it’s hard for people to relate to anybody when you go to an agency,” said Anthony Brower.

Brower of Friends in Action helps neighborhoods connect with agencies like the New Jersey State Police, which get 15,000 reports of missing people every year. While most are found, 1,100 unsolved cases remain on the books and police are pushing for answers.

“We use the DNA evidence to now move back into the case and to move on with the evidence that we can use to help these families find the answers that they’ve been looking for,” said Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Urbanski.

But sometimes, miraculously, all it takes is a phone call to a worried mom.

The reunion? “Amazing,” Aguilar said. “I hugged my mom like there was no tomorrow. I didn’t want to let go of her.”

President Ronald Reagan declared May 25 National Missing Children’s Day. People are urged to wear green ribbons. The green stands for hope that the kids will find their way home.