The woman approached my friend and me while we were standing near an elevator in the parking garage of a subway station in Los Angeles. She didn't seem to know where she was and asked us where the walkway out of the parking garage would take her. In front of her was a toddler, no more than a year and a few months old. The small, dirty stroller he sat in was overflowing with bags of personal items balanced precariously across the top hood. Even the bottom basket was fully loaded. To me, they appeared homeless.
Everything about the moment the woman spoke to my friend and me felt wrong. I looked into that little boy's eyes and saw blue swollen bruises on his face. The woman noticed my stare and rushed to say "He's not mine. He's been adopted. He's going to meet his new parents today," before turning the stroller and quickly walking away. In the seconds I had to register what was happening, I raised my cell phone and took a quick grainy picture of them both. What I didn't do, however, was notify authorities immediately.
I didn't know what a huge mistake that was. I had planned to look online once I got home and see if any reported missing children matched the child we saw at the subway station that night. Two hours later, when we finally arrived, we were both so tired that we fell asleep without doing the research we'd planned.
The next morning after exchanging texts with my friend, she reminded me of the toddler and strange woman, and I immediately searched online for missing children in Los Angeles.
Within two minutes of my search, I came upon the missing persons flier for a little boy named Erick Islas, who looked frighteningly similar to the child we saw the night before at the subway station.
After sharing the link to Erick Islas' missing persons flier with my friend, I decided to call the phone number listed for the Los Angeles Police Department. My thinking was that contacting the police department directly would be quicker than calling the missing-persons hotline listed on the flier.
I didn’t know that this too, was a giant mistake.
The call was answered by dispatch. The woman who answered was a police officer. She listened as I described the details of the sighting and then asked me if I was still at the scene of the event.
"Well, no," I replied. "Like I said, it happened last night."
'Oh," she responded. "Then you'll have to leave a message with our missing-persons unit. Unless you're actually there, we can't send an officer to respond to the sighting."
She gave me a number to call, and when I did, I was shocked to hear the recording tell me that missing-persons detectives were only available Monday through Friday. They even say in their recording that if you are a parent calling about a missing child you've already reported, your call will be returned during regular business hours.
I was flooded with memories of my own missing-person experience. Twenty years ago, my mother, Tami, disappeared and was never seen again. Detectives did a precursory investigation, then little else. Years later, even trying to get a detective to return my call was an exercise in Herculean-like patience. No one is as invested in searching for missing family members as the families themselves, which is a sad reality to face.
The next day, at 3:55 on Monday afternoon, a male detective from the missing persons unit returned my call. He didn't call to gather details of my sighting. Instead, he called to tell me the missing persons unit doesn't deal with missing juveniles. He told me I would need to call their "juvenile consultants."
"Are you kidding?" I asked the detective. "This child had bruises on his face — and who knows how far away he is by now. You're telling me to call another number and probably leave another message?"
Exasperated, he told me to also call the sexual assault reporting line, which made absolutely no sense to me.
I called the numbers given, and, as I suspected, was connected to a voicemail system. I left an angry message asking if anyone would be interested in following up on my sighting of a potentially missing child.
A day later, I received a call from another detective. She called, like the others, to tell me that her department didn't handle missing children.
I nearly lost my shit.
"What does someone have to do to report seeing a missing person?" I questioned. The detective was kinder than most. She agreed to help me track down the right person to give my report to.
"Just give me all the information you have," she said, "and I will see where this needs to go."
After hanging up, I called the hotline for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and reported my sighting. I also reported to the agency that the number they had listed on the flier for the Los Angeles Police Department led callers on a goose chase to try and find someone who would listen.
About an hour later I received a call from another officer who, fortunately, was assigned to the case of Erick Islas. She wanted to know everything about our sighting. Finally, someone was genuinely interested.
After giving her my statement, I emailed her my grainy photo, and finally, after three days of frustration and worry, felt like I had done my part.
I wondered how many possible witnesses had possibly seen my mom in Sacramento 20 years ago. Maybe, like me, they called, tried to report what they saw, and were met with disinterest or the shrugging of shoulders by a police department sworn to serve the community. I will never know the answer to that. What I do know is that my reporting of a bruised child being given to a new family on a Saturday night by a woman who appeared to be homeless mostly fell on deaf ears, and, had I not been determined, it may never have been heard.
An hour after emailing my photo to the officer, I heard back from her. She said the grandmother of the boy saw my photo and doesn't believe that was her grandson. From that small, blurry photo, the officer made the decision not to follow up on the investigation any further.
Somewhere, a little boy in Los Angeles with a large blue bruise by his nose and a purple bruise on his forehead was given away. Maybe this boy had been abused, abducted, neglected or trafficked. It is, unfortunately, another question I will never know the answer to. But what I know above all else is that our current reporting system is heavily flawed, and because of that, children in need of help are slipping through the cracks.
Information taken from the FBI website shows that there were 630,990 people reported missing as recently as 2013. Of those reports, 445,214 were missing children — with 64,898 of them listed as endangered or involuntary missing. USA Today reported that at any given time, there are an estimated 90,000 people missing in the U.S. with roughly 40 percent being juveniles. The problem is real, widespread and deserving of more attention.
Wherever that little boy I saw that night at the subway station is, I pray he is safe from harm. I also hope that Erick Islas, the missing child I thought I'd spotted, will be returned safely to his family. Recently, I was unable to find his missing poster online, and I hope that means he was found, safe and alive, and returned home. I also still dream about a day where I'll finally know what happened to my own mother. Until then, I hope that more will be done to protect people like them.
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