JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Police say thousands of teens are reported missing each year. A number of them left on their own will. We've learned that many times detectives suspect adults are helping the children hide from police and their families, which makes finding them and bringing them home safely much harder.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office gave News4Jax an all-access look with one of the detectives who's trying solve the city's toughest cases.
"This window right here. There was a step stool that we found, that we use in the kitchen," said Sherry Cliver, who showed us how her daughter Courtney snuck out of her bedroom window in Arlington.
Courtney, who's just 16 years old, hasn't been seen since November.
"She has a whole
Courtney is one of so many kids Detective Allan Richardson with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is trying to find.
We rode along as Richardson looked down street after street and knocked on door after door. He's hoping to find any clue that can lead him to Jacksonville's runaways.
Richards has been a part of JSO's Missing Persons Unit for a decade. He says the jobs has its ups and downs, but he's determined to make a difference.
"It's just getting out there, beating the bush," said Richardson. "It takes time, you've got to get a good lead, and most of all you got to want to do it."
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office gets about 5,000 missing persons calls every year. About 80 percent of those reports involve juveniles between the ages of 13 and 17. Some live on the streets or in the woods, but police say most find someone to keep a roof over their heads.
"They're out there running with the circuit. And they move from house to house to house to house," explained Richardson.
Another case Richardson is working, is a 16-year-old boy from the Northside, who didn't come home from school the day before. On the day we were with police, his mom had not heard from her son in more than 24 hours.
"You can't sleep," she told us. "You don't know what's going on. It wasn't like we got into an argument or anything."
Soon after, the mother, who doesn't want to be identified, came running out. As she's talking on the phone she tells Richardson that she thinks she knows where her missing son is. He's not too far away, walking down the road. Detective call for backup and follow the lead.
As the officers round the corner, a teen darts away. They catch him between two homes.
"Why you want to run? Anything on you?" Richardson asks.
It turns out he is not the missing boy they're looking for. However, it's his friend but he claims not to know anything. But mom says he's helping her son hide.
As the officers question him, someone spots the boy police are looking for in the woods nearby.
"We ain't gonna let you run, man," Richardson said.
Within minutes, police find him hiding in a ditch. Richardson returns the boy to his mother. But first, a lesson.
"I'm not lecturing you. I'm just tired of seeing young men growing up and having nothing to do. Okay? You got every opportunity to go out and be whatever you want to be," Richardson told him.
Richardson says this is a classic example of people helping a runaway hide. He says it makes his job harder, and it certainly isn't helping the kids either.
On that same day, the search on for another missing teen also from the Northside.
"This juvenile left on his own free will," Richardson adds.
The 17-year-old's family says he is an habitual runaway.
"We've had him almost 4 years and he's run away like 25 times," said the teen's adoptive father. "We love him, we want to do the best we can."
The teen's adoptive father says he may be staying at a woman's home in Arlington.
Sure enough, the next week, Richardson find him inside that woman's home. The homeowner tells us she's done nothing wrong and claims the boy's family knew he was staying with her.
"Some people would say that this is a case of harboring a runaway," we said.
"I do not," she replied. "I try to speak to their parents. I try to tell the kids not to come. I have enough with my kids."
"But if they don't, do you let them sleep here, and feed them?" we asked.
"I call their parents. I say, 'Look, your kid is here,'" she said.
Harboring a runaway is a crime. It's a first degree misdemeanor in Florida. But, there's little police can do because cases like this can be he said she said.
"We do the best we can," said Richardson.
Richardson says he's frustrated with how many times he sees adults enabling runaways - making difficult situations worse.
"If that person could just step back for a minute and say, 'Wow, what am I doing to this kid?' That would be the thing," he said adding, they're not really helping them, even if they think they are.
Richardson found two runaways while we were with him, but so many more remain missing, including Courtney Cliver. Her mother is sure someone is harboring her, and she's worried something bad will happen.
"That's always in the back of my mind. And also the fact that she's not going to school, she's put her future in jeopardy," she said.
Detectives ask that anyone with information about Courtney or the whereabouts of any other missing teens call the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office 904-630-0500. You can also remain anonymous and call crime stoppers at 866-845-TIPS.
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