The parents of a missing 16-year-old Georgia girl believe she may have been targeted and possibly kidnaped by strangers she met online.
Kaylee Jones, who has special needs and has gone two weeks without her medication since disappearing, was last seen on June 14 in the rural area of Whooping Creek Church Road.
"Kaylee, if you're listening or if you see this, come home," Kaylee's mother, Brenda Jones, pleaded in a message to her daughter during an interview with Fox News Digital. "We're so worried."
Her father, Daniel Jones, added: "If you don't want to come home, just let somebody know you're alive."
The Joneses explained that two days prior to Kaylee's disappearance, they had confiscated her phone in an effort to discipline their daughter, at which point Kaylee turned to her laptop and began communicating with strangers on chatrooms like Omegle — a website that allows users to anonymously send direct messages or video-chat with one another.
Kaylee shared personal information, including her family's address, with some of the "guys" she was speaking to online, her parents said.
On June 14, she climbed out of her second-story window at their home and apparently left their area without any way to communicate with her family since her phone had been confiscated. They have been searching for their daughter ever since.
Authorities have interviewed the identifiable people Kaylee had been in communication with on social media apps like Facebook and Snapchat, but tracking down anonymous users on chatroom websites is a bit more complex. As a result of the 16-year-old's conversations with strangers online, Brenda and Daniel Jones believe their daughter may even be a human trafficking victim.
Calahan Walsh, executive director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), said it's very possible Kaylee may have been abducted — either by someone she was in communication with online or by a complete stranger after she left home.
"It's a very dangerous situation," Walsh said. "Absolutely somebody could have come to pick her up — somebody that she was chatting with, somebody that she may have started what she believed to be a relationship with. But we can't rule out the possibility that she was running away from home… and it was somebody that she didn't know that picked her up, which is going to be even more difficult because she doesn't have access to that data] trail that law enforcement could follow to pinpoint who that person was that she met."
NCMEC, which assists families and law enforcement with locating missing children and keeping them safe from predators online, has a CyberTipline, which Walsh described as a "reporting mechanism so… service providers and social media platforms and the public can make reports of suspected child sexual exploitation that happens online."
"That can be anything from grooming and luring to online enticement, sex trafficking, extortion … and all sorts of different avenues of child exploitation," he said. "That CyberTipline last year received over 29 million reports, an increase from the year before, which had just over 21 million reports. … These numbers are unacceptable."
NCMEC said online enticement of minors increased by over 100% last year, and its 24-hour call center also received 94,428 calls in 2021 as children spent more time online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Many parents who didn't grow up with the Internet have a difficult time talking to their kids about safety and empowering safe and smart decisions," Walsh explained. "Unfortunately, we can't raise our children the same way our parents did. We can't treat social media and online activity like the Wild, Wild West. And, unfortunately, the pandemic has given many parents a false sense of security because they go, 'Oh, my child's home, they're safe. They're right there on the couch.' But when a child is connected to the Internet through any device… that child still can connect with anybody out there in the world."
Walsh has three tips for parents who want to keep their kids safe from predators online: familiarize themselves with the apps their kids are using; set group rules for online activity "and stick to them," particularly "with older teens"; and have ongoing and age-appropriate conversations with your kids about online safety.
"So for the youngest kids, it's simple messaging — easy stuff that's easy for them to understand and remember. Things like not revealing personal information and that sort of simple stuff for younger kids," he said. "For older teens, that conversation changes and needs to become more mature with their online activity, as well. We understand parents can have sometimes a hard time with these conversations."
NCMEC also has a program called NetSmarts that teaches kids how to make "safe and smart decisions" online. It also has resources for parents, like conversation guides that include tips on how to have conversations about online safety with their kids, Walsh noted.
Kaylee is described as 5 ft. 8 in. tall, weighing 135 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. Her mother believes she may have a dark blue book bag "with a horse on the front." She may be wearing black tennis shoes or converse sneakers, according to authorities.
Authorities are asking anyone with information about Kaylee's whereabouts to contact Investigator Kim Biggs at 770-830-5916 or email@example.com.