TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An annual event to remember Florida’s missing children, recognize the state’s efforts in child protection and educate Floridians on child safety and abduction prevention was held Thursday in Tallahassee.
Teresa Neves has attended the Florida Missing Children's Day ceremony since 2009, when her granddaughter, HaLeigh Cummings, disappeared.
“I see the new people come and I understand their pain,” Neves said. “It's very hard to have your child missing.”
On Feb. 9, 2009, HaLeigh was last seen alive at her home in the small Putnam County town of Satsuma. HaLeigh would be 13 years old this year. Investigators ultimately came to believe she is no longer alive.
Neves said it’s nice to be around people who understand what she’s going through.
“This is probably one of the hardest things to do every year, but it's also one of the most supportive,” Neves said. “It just helps everyone, you know, to be together and have the kids remembered.
Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera and First Lady Ann Scott joined Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen and hundreds of law enforcement personnel, public officials and citizens for the 2017 Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony.
“As a father and grandfather, I take the safety of Florida’s children very seriously, and my heart goes out to the parents and families who have experienced the heartache of a missing child,” Gov. Rick Scott said. “Our prayers are with each of them every day. Florida is now at a 46-year crime low, thanks to our hardworking law enforcement officers, and we will keep fighting to protect those most vulnerable in our state.”
In 2016, more than 33,000 incidents of missing children were reported to Florida law enforcement agencies and 12 Amber Alerts were issued statewide. Since its inception, 218 Amber Alerts have been issued, including 10 so far this year. Amber Alerts have directly aided in the rescue of 69 children.
“The security of Florida’s children and the safe recovery of those missing remain a priority for FDLE,” Swearingen said. “We are committed to working with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to prevent child abductions and apprehend predators.”
During a formal ceremony, López-Cantera and Swearingen recognized citizens, canine trailing teams and law enforcement officers for their exemplary efforts in conducting missing children investigations.
The following individuals are recipients of the 2017 Florida Missing Children’s Day Awards:
Combating Human Trafficking Award
Winner: Miami-Dade Police Department, Human Trafficking Squad
- Lt. Lewis Velken
- Sgt. Marie Perez
- Sgt. Joseph Menendez
- Detective Raul Cabrera
- Detective Hector Arreola
- Detective Kurtis Lueck
- Detective Isabel Soto
- Detective Paul Espana
Agency: Miami-Dade Police Department, Special Victims Bureau, Human Trafficking Squad
In June 2016, the Human Trafficking Squad assisted in the arrest of a human trafficker whose crimes spanned three countries and multiple states. The investigation resulted in the recovery of seven human trafficking victims.
Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Officer Troy Belden, Daytona Beach Police Department
While off duty, Belden witnessed an attempted kidnapping when a suspect attempted to enter a vehicle occupied by two children. Belden chased and apprehended the suspect and placed him under arrest.
State/Federal Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Special Agent Donald Cannon, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Miami Regional Operations Center
Cannon led an investigation that resulted in the arrest of a suspect accused of abusing nearly a dozen children, both in Florida and in the orphanage he operated in Haiti. The suspect was arrested on suspicion of violations in foreign commerce with the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with a minor.
Jimmy Ryce K-9 Trailing Team of the Year
Winner: Deputy Sheriff Jacob Durrance and K-9 Chase, Polk County Sheriff’s Office
Durrance and K-9 Chase tracked a 16-year-old suicidal girl. They began from her home and tracked her into the woods a mile from her home, where she was recovered and transported to the hospital.
Law Enforcement Task Force of the Year
Winner: Child Abduction Response Team: Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Florida Highway Patrol
- Resident Agent in Charge Brett Thompson, FDLE
- Special Agent Scott Gibson, FDLE
- Special Agent Andrew Powell, FDLE
- Special Agent Joshua Rios, FDLE
- Special Agent Charles Massucci, FDLE
- Special Agent Donald Schrenker, FDLE
- Sgt. Joseph Makal, Polk County Sheriff’s Office
- Detective Maria Sorensen, Polk County Sheriff’s Office
- Deputy Sheriff Jeffrey Bradford, Polk County Sheriff’s Office
- Task Force Detective Robert Mateo, Polk County Sheriff’s Office
- Sgt. Robert Kirkpatrick, Polk County Sheriff’s Office
- Special Agent Joe Boland, FBI
- State Trooper George Seiler, FHP
This Child Abduction Response Team led an abduction investigation that covered three states -- Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. The young girl was taken from her home and Amber Alerts were issued in all three states. The girl was recovered in Tennessee and flown back to Florida by the FDLE Aviation Unit.
School Bus Operator of the Year
Winner: Linda Sheldrake, Flagler County
Sheldrake noticed at one of her stops that a strange man was sitting in his car and focusing on one of the girls in a group. Knowing the girl had a longer walk than the other girls, Sheldrake contacted the mother about the situation and began dropping the girl off closer to her home to avoid the strange man.
John and Revé Walsh Award
Winner: Dr. Michael Warren
This year, Warren retired from his position as director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, where he helped identify numerous remains of missing persons in the state of Florida. Warren has remained an integral part of the investigation into the disappearance of Tiffany Sessions.
Evelyn D. Williams Memorial Award
Winner: Jan Henderson
Henderson recently retired from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where she led FDLE’s Unidentified Deceased Initiative. She helped identify the remains in multiple cases involving unidentified dead bodies. Henderson has also played an important role for over a decade in the organization of the Missing Children’s Day event.
Click here to see a current list of unsolved Amber Alert cases.
A current list of unsolved Missing Child Alert cases can be found here.
Click here for more information about the Florida Missing Children’s Day Foundation.