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CMPD Locates More Than 150 Missing Youth In Special Operation

CAMP Capt. Joel McNelly speaking at a press briefing May 19, 2021.
CAMP Capt. Joel McNelly speaking at a press briefing May 19, 2021.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has located 157 missing teens and children in a special operation with the U.S. Marshals Service and other community organizations.

The investigation dubbed "Operation Carolina Homecoming" focused on finding children who had been missing for a prolonged period of time and who had remained unaccounted for despite previous attempts to locate them.

CMPD Capt. Joel McNelly told reporters Wednesdaythat investigators spent months identifying and locating the youth — the majority of whom had been missing for more than six months. Some had been missing for more than a year, McNelly said.

"Several of these kids were engaged in high-risk activities," he said. "Not to sugarcoat anything, but things like narcotics activity, human trafficking, prostitution."

The missing youth were tracked to hotels and friends' houses. At least one was living with an adult partner, McNelly said.

Once located, the juveniles were connected to staff with Atrium Health's Levine Children's Hospital, which performed health checkups that included STI screenings and the administering of vaccines. The youth were also connected with staff at Pat's Place Child Advocacy Center for counseling.

Dr. Stacy Reynolds with Atrium Health said following up with the teens and children once they were located was a critical part of the operation. She said many had likely been fleeing unhealthy or unsafe situations.

"We have a tendency to see these kids as the 'bad kids,' the kids that are off the rails," Reynolds said. "Some of these kids run because they're seeking love and acceptance that they haven't been able to find in other places, and predators know how to recreate that, or even how to see from a distance the kid that needs that and is seeking that."

She said there's still an oversized need for mental health counseling and other social services that can help young people in troubled situations around North Carolina.

"If we don't tend to these kids, we don't give them what they need, there are predators out there that are going to recruit them to participate in the kind of criminal activity that makes us all less safe at night," Reynolds said. "So if you really want to create a healthy community and a safe community for your own children, then we have to be part of active recruiting efforts to pull these kids back into our world and make them believe that they can fit (in) and succeed here."

McNelly said once the teens and children were located, they were all reunited with families or placed into custody of the Department of Social Services. No criminal charges had been filed in connection with the operation, but McNelly said that could change if the investigators determine charges are appropriate in some cases.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal