More than 300 missing children cases remain unsolved in Virginia

A missing child is every parent's biggest scare, and it can happen in a blink of an eye.

13-year-old Selena Salazar is from Portsmouth and has been missing since April 15. She lived with her adopted mother, two brothers and a sister.

Salazar's mother, Erin Finley-Orick, believes she was lured by someone online.

"We had a nice night, we made spaghetti dinner, we watched two movies, she was laughing and enjoying a family night with us and then the next morning she was gone," Finley-Orick said.

There are 329 missing children in Virginia as of May 22 and the reasons why children vanish vary.

Search and rescue coordinator for the Commonwealth, Mark Eggeman, told News 3's Aleah Hordges that many are considered runaways and those cases normally resolve themselves.

"When I look at missing children stats, a lot of them are back within a week. They may disappear for a couple of days, but they're back within a week," Eggeman said.

However, other cases can be far more complicated to solve.

"We see kids that are coerced or manipulated into taking off with a stranger, which is the most at-risk thing and that's the pipeline into sex trafficking," added Eggeman.

The majority of reported missing children are from high density areas. Northern Virginia, the Richmond area and Hampton Roads make up 84% of all cases. Hampton Roads makes up 1/3 of those cases alone.

"Once we get into the summer months they tend to be less supervised," mentioned Eggeman. "They tend to go missing more often in the summer, then it kind of drops off when they go back to school. Then you get around the holidays and the numbers spike up a little bit again."

Investigators track missing children with the help of their cell phones and social media accounts, but that doesn't always guarantee leads.

"I tried to check her accounts; that was like one of the first things I did while I was waiting on the officer and she had deleted most of her accounts that I know about," mentioned Finley-Orick.

"For law enforcement they have to figure out what apps are on the phone and then they would have to subpoena each of those apps independently to try and find out who they've been talking to or what maybe on there, but in some cases that information maybe unobtainable," Eggeman said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has been working 24 hours a day and seven days a week to safely bring children back home since 1984.

"A missing child report is never closed at the national center until a child has been physically located, no matter how long it takes," said vice president of NamUs, Robert Lowery.

All reports go directly to the call center. The description of the child and any information leading to where they could be is entered into the database and is assigned to a case manager. NCMEC also has Forensic Imaging that provides age progressions of children who have been missing longer than two years.

Forensic artists will Photoshop what they believe the child looks like now versus when they went missing. It's the picture you see online or at on the missing children's board at your local grocery store.

"We always like to say that it just has to spark enough recognition in the person that might know that child to get them recovered. It doesn't have to be exact," said NamUs forensic artist Christi Andrews.

Artists use photos of the age the child went missing and of blood relatives to recreate the image. It takes between four and eight hours to complete. "We will do an age progression every two years until the child turns 18 and then after that, every five years," Andrews said.

Facial reconstructions are done on unidentified deceased children if DNA isn't a match by using morgue photos or skeletal remains.

However, despite advancements in technology, what can the community do to avoid a child's disappearance all together?

"Just knowing where your kids are you know talking to them," said Eggeman. "'Who are your friends? Who are you hanging out with? Where are you going?'"

Watching for changes in behavior and taking action could help keep your child from becoming another statistic.

"At that point someone needs to be picking up the phone and reporting them missing and the sooner better than later," Eggeman added.

Resources:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

The AWARE Foundation