Top experts gather in Carmel Valley for Help Keep Kids Safe town hall forum

The Help Keep Kids Safe town hall forum was held at Cathedral Catholic on Jan. 30.
The Help Keep Kids Safe town hall forum was held at Cathedral Catholic on Jan. 30.

By Karen Billing

Last week the lobby of Cathedral Catholic High’s Guadalupe Theater was filled with large posters of missing children. Some of the faces, unfortunately, are well known, the ones we know who never came home like Chelsea King and Amber Dubois.

“San Diego has known too much tragedy. There are too many names etched into the hearts and minds of San Diego,” said Ernie Allen, co-founder of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children

Allen was a distinguished guest at Cathedral Catholic High’s Keep Kids Safe town hall forum on Jan. 30. The town hall presented an impressive gathering of authentic voices, advocates and experts on child exploitation, including kidnapping survivors Jessyca Mullenberg Christianson and Alicia Kozakiewicz, as well as Erin Runnion, the mother of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002.

The forum topics and conversation were difficult to hear, but ultimately very important.

“The message of tonight is that it takes a whole community to keep kids safe,” Allen said.

The event was presented in partnership with The Chadwick Center for Children and Families at Rady Children’s Hospital. Cathedral Catholic senior James Morris and Bishop’s School student Mason Church, both young advocates for missing children, were also key in organizing the event.

The panel members were available as they were in San Diego last week participating in the San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment.

“These are tough issues,” Allen said. “But there is hope.”

He said more missing kids are coming home safely in America than any other time—the law enforcement community is better prepared, laws are better, the technology is better and the public is more alert and aware.

However, thousands of children are still being victimized in the country. Allen said there are currently 795,500 reported missing children. Of those, 203,900 are family abductions.

One in five girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18 and one in 10 boys; however, only one in three children will tell anyone about it.

Allen said 89 percent of the female victims are assaulted between the age of 12 and 17; 29 percent are victimized by someone that they know.

There are more than 736,000 registered sex offenders and 90,000 are in California alone.

Allen said rapes and sexual assaults are declining but still two-thirds of sex offenders in state prisons have victimized children and 30 percent have assaulted more than one child.

Allen said that additionally 100,000 kids are trafficked for sex in this country, many of them leaving their homes voluntarily with a predator who has lured them or they are targeted out of the child welfare system.

“(Sex trafficking) is not just a problem on the other side of the world, it’s a problem in U.S. cities and the victims are U.S. kids,” Allen said.

Allen said one of his first cases with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which he also co-founded, was 7-year-old Leticia Hernandez who was abducted from her front yard in Oceanside in 1989. He said during the 13-month search for her they believed they came close to finding her several times but toward the end of the investigation her body was recovered close to her home and it appeared the remains had been there for quite some time.

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