Ceremony marks Florida Missing Children’s Day

Less than one percent of missing persons are not recovered by one year.

Less than 1% of missing persons are not recovered by one year.

Monday is dedicated to finding that 1% and reuniting them with their families or at least bringing them some closure.

A special ceremony was held Monday in Tallahassee to mark Florida Missing Children’s Day. It was the 23rd time that Florida commemorated the day at the state Capitol.

“We will never abandon the search for missing children,” said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen.

For Florida’s Missing Children’s Day, the hope is to bring more children home to their loved ones. Right now, there are quite a few from Northeast Florida. Last month was HaLeigh Cummings’ 18th birthday. Her family still hopes and prays she is one day found safe since the girl disappeared from her Putnam County home 12 years ago.

Age progression photo from National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows HaLeigh Cummings on the left at age 5. On the right, what she's believed to look like at age 16. (News4Jax.com)

Cummings’ disappearance, along with those of Mark Degner and Bryan Hayes, remain some of the most high-profile in the Northeast Flordia area. Degner and Hayes were last seen leaving Paxon Middle School in 2005.

GALLERY: Children who disappeared from Northeast Florida and were never found

Data show that last year, there were 19 Amber Alerts with 18 recoveries, 33 Missing Child Alerts with 30 recoveries, and 38 recoveries were directly attributed to the Flordia Alert System.

Other data offer similar hope. Statistics from 2019 show nearly 82% of missing persons are recovered within the same month, 12% of missing persons are recovered within a month and less than 1% of missing persons are not recovered by one year.

Florida had the first missing children’s clearinghouse in the nation, and of the 25 search teams certified nationally, Florida is a leader.

“Florida is privileged to have seven of those, making our state a model,” Swearingen said.

The board behind Monday’s ceremony was created following the 1995 abduction, rape and murder of Jimmy Ryce. Both of his parents have died, but they always believed he would have been found if a bloodhound had been close by, and they made it their life’s work to make dogs available.

“We’ve given out over 700 dogs nationally. In fact, we even have one in South Africa,” said Ryce Foundation Director Mark Young.

Flagler County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Frederick Gimbel and K-9 Holmes were named the Jimmy Ryce K-9 Trailing Team of the Year at the ceremony. They were honored for their role in safely recovering a missing child with autism.

While hurt and emotion were on display at the ceremony, it is the same families that come back year after year.

“It gets his picture out there. It’s not an easy thing to do,” said Billie-Jo Jimenez, aunt of Zachary Bernhardt, who disappeared in 2000.

Roy Brown has been placing a yellow rose next to his daughter Amanda’s photo for 20 years. When asked what makes him keep come back, he said: “For my daughter. You know, I am friends with all these families.”

A special ceremony was held Monday in Tallahassee to mark Florida Missing Children’s Day.

In addition to remembering Florida’s missing children and recognizing the state’s efforts in child protection, Florida Missing Children’s Day aims to educate Floridians on child safety.

With technology advancing and children having more online access, parents and caregivers are urged to be extra vigilant. Recommendations include creating rules for internet use in the home, regularly checking social media accounts and internet histories to see which sites your children are visiting, and keeping an open line of communication with your child so that they know they can come to you about situations they face without fear of getting into trouble.

Another tip is to use the internet with your children and talk with them about what to do if they find content that they find questionable or uncomfortable.’

If you have any information about a missing child, contact the Florida Department of Law Enforcement at 1-888-FL MISSING.

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.