The first virtual Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony was released on Monday.
The annual event is held to remember Florida’s missing children, recognize the state’s efforts in child protection, and educate Floridians on child safety and abduction prevention.
“Missing Children’s Day is a solemn day of commemoration, where we look for hope in the shadow of tragedy and stand together to remember our most vulnerable citizens. We praise our most heroic who work every day to protect our children and bring those missing home safely,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Today we raise awareness of Florida’s missing children, a day no parent should ever have to endure. Together we can all make a difference in the life of an abducted child. Be aware, be on the lookout and be alert, because one missing child is too many,” said First Lady Casey DeSantis.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody also weighed in on the event.
“As a mother, the thought of a child going missing is terrifying and heartbreaking. As the chair of the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, I know the dangers of missing and runaway children becoming victims of human trafficking. Given the recent stories of missing children being rescued across the U.S., many of whom may have been victims of trafficking, the importance of this day and its message remains crucial. We have not forgotten you, and we will continue to raise awareness and fight for your safe return home. I am incredibly grateful for Florida law enforcement’s tireless efforts to protect our children and bring missing children home,” Moody said.
“As a father of two myself, whenever I see the words ‘missing child’ it shakes me to my core. That is why, on Florida Missing Children’s Day, it is important to highlight the vital efforts of our law enforcement community in ensuring our children are protected and any child that goes missing in this state is brought home quickly and safely. Thank you to these heroes who work every day to protect our communities and most especially our children,” said Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried also marked the occasion.
“On Missing Children’s Day, we promise to never forget Florida’s missing and abducted children, and recognize the young lives returned home through the tireless work of heroes. Let us always remain vigilant as we thank all whose efforts and dedication create safer communities for our youngest Floridians,” Fried said.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Rick Swearingen said, “The safety of Florida’s children and families remains the top priority for FDLE, as is the successful recovery of those who are currently missing. Last year, FDLE issued 13 AMBER and 24 Missing Child Alerts. I urge all Floridians to sign up to receive AMBER and Missing Child Alerts because your help could save a child’s life.”
The following 2020 Florida Missing Children’s Day Awards were presented:
Citizen of the Year
Winner: Rosler Pierre
Mr. Pierre was in the parking lot of an Orlando big-box store when he noticed a woman crying and chasing a suspect. Mr. Pierre was able to apprehend the man and held him until police arrived. The suspect, a sexual offender, was arrested for lewd molestation after he lewdly touched a child inside the store.
Combating Human Trafficking Award
Winner: Officer Jeffrey Arbogast, Margate Police Department
In February, Officer Arbogast stopped a stolen vehicle. When questioning the driver of the car, a 15-year-old girl, he became suspicious. The teen, a runaway, was frightened and became upset when Officer Arbogast mentioned the vehicle’s owner. Even though the child refused to speak, he continued his investigation thinking the situation involved more than a stolen vehicle. Officer Arbogast confirmed the girl was a human trafficking victim who stole the car to escape from the man that was trafficking her.
>Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Detective Justin Murray and Detective Maria Pita, Clearwater Police Department
Detectives Murray and Pita received information that a suspect was sexually abusing a child and had to work quickly to identify the child, build a case and arrest the suspect before he had the opportunity to further abuse the child.
State/Federal Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Special Agent Supervisor Patrick Crough, FDLE Fort Myers
In two separate cases last year, Special Agent Supervisor Crough rescued two Guatemalan teenagers who were smuggled into the United States illegally and trafficked. In the first case, an 18-year-old male was forced to work at a landscaping service, was physically abused, had his wages stolen and was forced to live in a storage shed. In the second case, a 16-year-old female was sexually abused by her trafficker and his brother. Both victims were rescued.
Jimmy Ryce K9 Trailing Team of the Year
Winner: Sgt. Frederick J. Gimbel II and K-9 Holmes, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office
Sgt. Gimbel and Holmes, searching for a missing juvenile, pursued a scent trail through woods, a cul-de-sac and several undeveloped wooded lots, but found nothing. Undeterred, Sgt. Gimbel and Holmes searched near a wood line, back and forth until entering a small game trail. Sgt. Gimbel found a red blanket and backpack 10 feet into the woods, along with the boy, who was not injured.
Law Enforcement Task Force of the Year
Winner: Human Trafficking Squad, Miami-Dade Police Department
Lt. Luis Poveda
Sgt. David Quintas
Detective Jessica Bermudez
Detective Johnpaul Valentine
Detective Chaz Felder
Victim Advocate Elba Suarez
The Human Trafficking Squad of the Miami-Dade Police Department investigated 288 human trafficking cases (281 sex trafficking and 7 labor trafficking cases) from January 2019 through April 2020, all occurring within the jurisdiction of Miami-Dade County. During the time period, 18 victims of human trafficking were recovered—six of whom were missing juveniles—and eight people were charged with human trafficking. The team rescued a missing 16-year-old runaway from North Carolina who was being trafficked for sex. They rescued a missing juvenile from Tamarac and in the process shutdown an organized sex trafficking operation. And during Super Bowl LIV, the team fielded 141 tips and recovered 13 victims of human trafficking.
Bus Operator of the Year
Winner: Twanna Meeks, Leon County
When a Leon County middle school student failed to return home, a worried parent called the school. Ms. Meeks was able to assist authorities by confirming the child was on the school bus, the location where the child was dropped off and even the clothing worn at the time. Ms. Meeks remained alongside the transportation team until the child was found safely around 9 p.m. the same day.
John and Revé Walsh Award
Winner: Major Milo Thornton, Indian River County Sheriff’s Office
Across Indian River County, Major Thornton is known for his efforts to provide children with after-school activities and learning opportunities. In 2019, he coordinated the acquisition of a tracking bloodhound from the Jimmy Ryce Center, increasing his department’s tracking capabilities for missing children. As a youth football coach and mentor for at-risk children in his community, Major Thornton started a program to provide bicycles to children from low-income households and during COVID-19.
Evelyn D. Williams Memorial Award
Winner: Gwendolyn Johnson, FDLE (retired)
Ms. Johnson recently retired from FDLE where she led the Missing Endangered Persons Information Clearinghouse (MEPIC) as the senior management analyst supervisor for 13 years. Some of her accomplishments during her 22 years with MEPIC include helping create Florida Missing Children’s Day in 1999, helping establish Florida’s AMBER Alert plan in 2000, its expansion in 2003 and Florida’s Silver Alert Plan in 2008.
Winner: Jamie Meeks, MEPIC Advisory Board
A retired United States Marine, Mr. Meeks has been a lifelong advocate for Florida children. He was a school resource officer in Leon County for 21 years and served as the president of the Florida Association of School Resource Officers Board of Directors. He has also been the president of the MEPIC Advisory Board.
Since its inception, 234 AMBER Alerts have been issued, including 15 so far this year. Florida AMBER Alerts have directly aided in the rescue of 73 children.