Sierra LaMar Case Differs from Runaways

On Wednesday, I was interviewed by CBS News to discuss runaways. The day before, Sheriff Laurie Smith held a press conference to announce the arrest of a suspect in the kidnapping and murder of Morgan Hill teenager Sierra LaMar. During this press conference, Sheriff Smith stated that since January 2011, there were 43 reports of missing children (females) in Santa Clara County that were still open, and pondered, “You wonder if any of those were actually abductions also.” The sentence just hung in the air at the press conference, and no one asked her follow-up questions. 

I watched the press conference on YouTube later that day, and I am sure Sheriff Smith didn’t mean to put the tragic Sierra LaMar stranger abduction case in the same category as the missing children cases still open in the county. Unfortunately, the media did follow up on her comment, and began calling the San Jose Police Department (SJPD) and Bill Wilson Center because of our work with runaways. 

SJPD did not comment on the issue because of the open criminal case involving Sierra LaMar.  However, I did call SJPD to clarify who some of the missing cases are for the females. As I suspected, most of them are runaways, and many of them remain open because the girls are staying somewhere other than home but refuse to return. The police cannot close a case if the girl does not return home.

Kids run away from home for many reasons, but it is treated as a social problem not a criminal one. Running away from home is not a crime per se, but is considered a status offense. A status offense means it is illegal for a minor, but not an adult. For example, truancy is a status offense. That’s why programs like Bill Wilson Center began treating runaways in the early 70s when laws were passed to prevent youth being incarcerated for committing status offenses. Every year Bill Wilson Center serves over 300 youth ages 11 through 17 at our Crisis Residential Program in Santa Clara.

The nature of running away has changed because of the Internet, social media, and cell phones. The number of reported runaways is down nationwide because kids often stay connected with friends and families even after running away. Parents are less likely to call the police if they are still receiving messages from their children, either through texts or forwarded messages by friends.

There was no indication that Sierra LaMar was a runaway. Her clothes and cell phone were found three days after she disappeared. Every indication shows that this was a random act of kidnapping by a stranger. These cases are tragic, but are also rare. Kids will continue to run away, and hopefully, come to places like Bill Wilson Center. We work closely with all the county police departments and the sheriff’s department to help bring young people and their parents back together. Over 85 percent of our youth return home. Others are placed with relatives or friends. 

As a parent who has lost a child, my heart goes out to Sierra LaMar’s family. I hope she is found so the family can have some closure. I also hope they have the support to help them through this dark time.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

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