Almost 30 children were reported missing in the Cleveland area over a two-week span at the start of May, which is something a local police chief said he has not seen in his 33-year career.
Newburgh Heights Police Chief John Majoy, who also serves as the board president of the volunteer nonprofit Cleveland Missing, told Fox News Digital that the number of 12- to 17-year-olds reported missing has remained at unprecedented levels throughout the month.
"There's always peaks and valleys with missing persons, but this year it seems like an extraordinary year," said Majoy, who heads a police department in a suburb just outside of Cleveland.
"For some reason, in 2023, we've seen a lot more than we normally see, which is troubling in part because we don't know what's going on with some of these kids, whether they're being trafficked or whether they're involved in gang activity or drugs."
Cleveland police recorded 27 juveniles under the age of 18 were reported missing between May 2 and May 16.
It is more likely a majority of cases are runaways versus abductions, Majoy said, but young teenagers are naive and susceptible to predators, who are "wolves in sheep's clothing."
Their disappearances do not make the news unless there is an Amber Alert, and their stories are not being shared on social media.
"It's a silent crime that happens right under our noses," he said. "The problem is where are they? Where do they go? They can be in a drug house or farmed to prostitution or caught up in drug trafficking or gangs."
This feeds into the cycle of crime in the greater Cleveland area.
When teenagers are desperate, they join gangs for protection, which leads to initiation crimes like carjackings and robberies, they sell their bodies, or they use drugs and become addicts, Majoy said.
What makes this issue more troubling is the lack of photos. Scrolling through Cleveland's missing persons page, there are more blank squares with the words, "Photo not available," than there are pictures of the missing person.
This creates all sorts of headaches for law enforcement, Majoy said. "Unless someone knows that person, then we're not going to have any luck."
On the flip side, if the family has photos, police can use social media and blast out messages to the public, which he said is law enforcement's "greatest asset" in missing persons cases, to stockpile tips and potential leads.
Cleveland and the surrounding suburbs have a unique nonprofit called Cleveland Missing that is dedicated to providing support to families of missing persons, assisting with searches for their loved ones, and helping them cope with their emotions.
It was founded by Sylvia Colon and her cousin Gina DeJesus, who was abducted by kidnapper Ariel Castro in 2004 when she was 14.
"Every family's experience is different, but there are some things that are the same for everybody," Colon told Fox News Digital. "It's first disbelief, blame. (Questions like) ‘What did we do wrong?’ 'Did we miss something?' ‘Oh, my gosh, how are we going to find this person?’ The not knowing what are we going to do.
"As the days progress and becomes a case that's not solved after a couple months to two years to three years, life happens, too. Then you have this guilt of continuing to press forward and live your life while continuing your search."
To leave tips for police on missing persons in and around Cleveland, call 216-623-7697 or email email@example.com.
Cleveland Missing is located at 2937 West 25th St. in Cleveland and can be reached at 216-232-6470.