Finding Runaways an Ordeal for Families

Published Aug. 5, 2007 by Colorado Springs Gazette.

A friend tipped Laura Stanigar that her teenage daughter’s 41-year-old boyfriend “Skid” was back after skipping town with Sarah for more than two months.

“He came back in town, but he came back in town without my daughter and so I ripped him up with my bare hands,” she said. “I was bleeding everywhere. I said, ‘Where’s my daughter? You killed my daughter!’”

Soon, 12 police cars surrounded the two at the downtown bus terminal on Nevada Avenue, Stanigar said. After the incident, she climbed into an ambulance to spend four days in the Veterans Administration hospital in Denver, so stressed about her runaway daughter that she wasn’t taking care of herself.

“I’m 43 years old and that doesn’t even describe the age I am now,” she said. “It has aged me beyond belief.”

Each year more than three quarters of a million children are declared missing or runaways nationwide. The No. 1 reason children go missing is because they run away. Most return home within a week, but those who don’t are often left to the world’s mercy.

Parents such as Stanigar go through a similar helplessness. She and her family spent five months passing out fliers, checking online forums, sending mass e-mails and sifting through all available means to find her child after authorities had done all they could or would.

Sarah’s troubles began when she was in sixth grade and began using drugs in the town they lived in outside Detroit. Stanigar and Sarah moved to Colorado Springs, where Sarah’s aunt lives, to try and start over.

“She’s friendly, trusting, just a cool kid, you know, sort of like a little hippie. Just your average teenager, I would say,” Stanigar said.

But the drug use didn’t stop and by 17, Sarah had used other hard drugs, dropped out of school and was on probation for felony trespassing after breaking into an abandoned apartment, her mother said. Charges could not be confirmed through court records as juvenile cases are sealed.

Early one morning in February, the two were sitting in their apartment, Sarah playing her guitar, Stanigar nodding off to sleep. When she awoke, her daughter was gone. Stanigar filed a missing persons report with the Colorado Springs Police Department, which entered her daughter’s information into state and national databases in case police, health or social service authorities should come across her.

A report was filed with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Charles Pickett, a senior case manager at the center who has worked there since 1984, said they actively search for children, working with friends and family as well as businesses, agencies and law enforcement wherever the child might be.

“Someone along the way can lend a helping hand to a desperate child but nearly all of them expect something in return,” he said.

Missing children may be forced into sex and prostitution, selling drugs or end up dead.

“Anything you could write about in life is what could happen to this child,” Pickett said.

Sgt. Maggie Santos, director of the CSPD’s Crimes Against Children unit, says police employ the usual investigative techniques in trying to find a child, but if there is no sign of a crime, it’s hard for police to actively search.

The day after her daughter ran, Stanigar questioned her daughter’s friends and people she knows in the homeless community. The first solid lead was in late April when she saw an unusual number on Sarah’s phone bill. Police confirmed it was the home phone number of Skid’s parents in Lemoore, in central California.

In May, about a week after Skid returned to Colorado Springs, Stanigar’s boyfriend got details from Skid, who had jotted some information about where he last saw Sarah on a plastic foam cup. The cup gave them their second lead: Sarah hitched a ride with a trucker from a Riverside, Calif., trucking company named Cat’s Paw Transportation.

A CSPD detective tracked the company down but not the driver, who had been a temporary employee. The company helped by posting Sarah’s information on a prominent online trucking forum. This narrowed Stanigar’s focus to California but was the last time CSPD officials were able to help her.

Stanigar has a bachelor’s degree in social work and is working on a bachelor’s in criminal justice at Remington College. So she had some skills that helped her search. She and her sister checked California hospitals for Jane Does or unidentified bodies. She faxed fliers to homeless shelters and sent e-mails in the hopes of contacting whoever could help.

While she searched from Colorado, her son Will and her former husband joined with a two-week road trip, first going from Detroit to the North American Rainbow Gathering in Fallsville, Ark., an annual gathering of about 30,000 hippies and transients.

“Once we got there, there were license plates from everywhere. From New York state, Washington, Oregon and so it was like, those people are going back to where they came from and maybe they can look for her there,” Will said.

On June 20, Sarah turned 18. Agreements among states ensure if children crosses state lines and is picked up by authorities they will be returned to their home community. All that changes once they become adults. The missing-children center continues searches as long as the person went missing before turning 18.

Regardless of her new legal status, California police were helpful, giving Will and his father the route of the trucker she was last seen with and pointing them toward Indio, in Southern California, and Tempe and Flagstaff in Arizona.

Homeless people they met in Flagstaff told them to head back to Indio. Sarah was with truckers a lot during her six months on the run, traveling as far east as Florida, stopping through Mississippi and seven other states in between while catching rides from big-rig drivers. Two weeks ago, she found her family. She saw one of the fliers they posted at a truck stop and when she called her father and brother, they were only four or five hours away. She was living in an Indio trailer camp behind a motorcycle shop.

“It felt really good because that was about the time we were heading home ‘cause we had stopped at all the stops she could possibly be at. There was nothing left to do,” Will said. Stanigar was more pensive than happy.Her daughter’s drug use concerns her but she says she’s there for her daughter until she gets over it. Since Sarah left the state while on probation, she says she will receive a two-year prison term should she return to Colorado. She’s living at an undisclosed location with family friends. “You don’t want your kids dead. You just want them to change,” Stanigar said.


– Think clearly about where your child might be and the reasons he or she might have run away. Try to remain calm.

– Check with anyone who may have clues to your child’s whereabouts.

– Report the runaway to local law enforcement. Make sure to request your child’s information be entered into Colorado and national crime information center databases. There is no law requiring a waiting period for reporting a child missing to law enforcement or for entry into National Crime Information Center. If local law enforcement won’t enter it into the national database, the FBI will.

– Report your child missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children by calling 1-800-THE-LOST.

– Make and distribute fliers where you think your child may be both locally and around the country. A format for fliers is available on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Web site.

– Search for clues on social networking sites such as or Facebook as well as in their room, notes, e-mail, bank transactions or credit card and telephone records.

– Stay in touch with people who may have clues to your daughter’s whereabouts and follow up with authorities.

– Record all information about the investigation.

Source: Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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