Last November, 13-year-old Allie Loftis ran away from her home in Wayland. She left her parents a brief note and disappeared. “Don’t look for me,” it read. “I’m not lost. I’m found.”
She shut off her cellphone.
Allie’s mother was physically ill when she realized her daughter was gone. She couldn’t eat or sleep as a search began. Twelve days later Allie was found in Jersey City, N.J., after a tip led police to the home of a 42-year-old sexual predator the teenager may have met online.
But if it was the Internet that led the eighth-grader to run, it was the Internet that helped bring her home. While their only child was gone, her parents waged a vigorous online campaign to publicize her disappearance — a campaign that ultimately attracted media attention, which caught the tipster’s eye.
Now Tony Loftis is launching an online effort called “Find Your Missing Child” to help other parents who find themselves in similarly terrifying circumstances.
“When your kid runs away, you need a community of people to help find her,” said Tony Loftis, 49. “We were able to create a huge community by using social media. It wasn’t just us looking for her.”
Her parents’ grass-roots efforts expanded the search to include thousands of total strangers. A Find Allie Loftis Facebook page they created with photographs of their daughter, and which is still up, was “liked” by 3,000 people. Nearly 4,000 shared a Huffington Post story about Allie.
The cross-posting of information about the runaway on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is standard fare in the marketing and public relations world where Tony Loftis worked for decades. But when he sought information for parents using social media to find their children, he got nothing.
With his daughter back home, Loftis is creating a nonprofit to share what he has learned with other desperate parents. The fledgling organization recently published a 22-page social media guide for families of missing children. There are all too many of them. At least 1.6 million youth run away annually, according to the National Runaway Switchboard, a nonprofit that runs a 24-hour youth hot line.
Loftis has three key messages for parents. “You need to build a community of people, you can help drive leads to detectives, and you should actively take part in searching for your child.”
Most parents, he says, have no idea what to do. He and his wife didn’t.
“I just made this stuff up as I went along,” he said. “Otherwise, you sit by the phone and wait for it to ring.”
Tracking Allie to New York
Even now, when Christina Loftis looks back to Nov. 4, 2011, the day her daughter ran away, she grapples with why it all happened.
“She was happy. She did struggle with friends, but she was making them,” Christina recalled. “I was sick to my stomach, barely functioning, in shock. It just did not seem like it could be real. To keep me going I just kept saying to myself, ‘She is a smart girl. She must have a plan.’ ”
Their search centered on New York, where surveillance cameras at the Port Authority Bus Terminal had spotted Allie. On the third day, her father went to New York to search, while a friend or relative stayed with Christina to lend support, and to help set up and run the Facebook page.
“Our daughter Allie Loftis has been missing since Fri night Nov 4th,” the page said. “We know that she took a bus to NYC and got off in Port Authority around 11pm. She is a mature looking 13, 5’4”, 130 lbs, black hair usually in a bun or ponytail, bi-racial, light skinned, last seen wearing blue jeans and black Uggs.”
Sitting in their Wayland home on a recent day, their dog, a Chinese Crested Powderpuff named Puffy next to them on their couch, the Loftises talked about the ordeal.
But they also insist on protecting their daughter’s privacy. November is National Runaway Prevention Month, and while the couple want to share what they have learned, they requested that no images of their daughter run with this story. She has never spoken to her parents about the ordeal, other than to apologize to them.
“If she wants to, she will tell us in her time,” said Tony, who believes she may have met the man online.
Married 17 years, Tony and Christina met when they were working at Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge. The family lived in Somerville until 2009, when they moved to Wayland for more space and better schools. Allie swam and rowed crew.
Her parents say she is now a high school freshman, no longer in Wayland schools, and is doing well. Christina describes Allie as “quiet but friendly. She’s sweet, she’s funny,” a girl who looks older than her age.
Middle school can be a difficult time, especially for girls, said Christina, 47. “Allie was struggling with the normal issues of being a teenager. I remember being miserable at that age.”
Allie found the suburbs boring, and her parents weren’t surprised when police learned two days into the search that she had taken a Peter Pan bus to New York. They often visited Tony’s family in Brooklyn and Allie loved going, but she had never taken the bus alone.
After a few days of not hearing from her, Tony, who had been laid off from his job three weeks earlier, headed to New York. Christina stayed behind; she works in human resources for TJX Cos. in Framingham, and wanted to monitor the Facebook page.
The couple learned that 99 percent of runaways come home, half within a week. But when a week passed with no sign of Allie, their fear grew.
Going to New York was therapeutic for Tony. Wayland Police Detective Ruth Backman suggested that he go and get Allie’s story and photo in the public eye.
“We were all just hoping someone would see something and would pick up the phone,” said Backman. “It was a long 12 days, but I think the social media piece certainly made it easier to get the word out.”
Tapping networks for help
At first, the New York City police told Tony they didn’t handle runaways.
“They said thousands of kids run away to New York, that she hadn’t been gone that long, and they had no proof she was in the city,” he recalled.
The New York television stations told him they didn’t cover runaways, either. And that’s where Tony’s connections, personal and virtual, kicked in. Friends used contacts in New York to get posters of Allie put in the security department of every library in Manhattan. A poker buddy of Tony’s knew a district manager for Starbucks, who put her poster in several of his Manhattan franchises.
Meanwhile, the Facebook page and Tony’s tweets were attracting thousands of followers and responses. A friend of his knew someone at the Huffington Post, which ran a short piece on Allie’s disappearance. E-mail chains began, with people sending the story out to all their contacts, and asking them to forward it.
When the New York Daily News picked up the story, Tony said TV reporters reconsidered it. He was interviewed on four stations, including a three-minute live interview on Nov. 16 — 12 days after Allie’s disappearance. He spoke of his upcoming birthday, and Thanksgiving, and what a gift it would be to have his daughter home.
“Some guy saw me on TV, recognized Allie, and called the New York City Police Department,” Tony said. “The tipster mentioned that this was a neighborhood where people didn’t snitch, but he did anyway.”
Within hours, police went to a Jersey City address and arrested Jorge Luis Garzon, who was charged with kidnapping, child endangerment, and other offenses. He pleaded guilty and is serving a five-year sentence.
As for Tony and Christina, they reunited with their daughter at the Jersey City police station. By the time Christina drove from Wayland, Allie had fallen asleep in a chair. Mother and daughter hugged quietly for a long time.
“It was as joyful and as painful as anyone could imagine,” said Tony. “The police told us they had found her, but we could hardly believe it until we saw her.”
Helping other parents
“The New York City police told us that without social media, we would not have found her,” Tony said. A TV reporter told him, “We’re covering this because Twitter has blown up on this.”
Wendy Jolley-Kabi, president of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organizations, said the Loftises’ social media campaign to find Allie may help other parents.
“One of the hardest things for parents and for law enforcement is what can families do that is not a distraction, but a benefit,” she said. “The Loftises jumped right into the deep end and figured it out before anyone else had.”
The website (findyourmissingchild.org) and guidebook that Tony Loftis launched walks parents through both the social media and traditional media thicket, and tutors them on their message: This could happen to any family; our child is in danger and every minute matters; we need your help.
Loftis’s nonprofit plans to put out a video for parents and runaway youth organizations and eventually build a portal for parents, who would create their own social media profile. The portal would serve as a single search site for various social media outlets. He and Christina are holding home fund-raisers, have a silent auction online, and are seeking grants to sustain such projects.
Online, the Loftises believe that negative comments and questions must be addressed, not ignored. When people would write, “Why didn’t you know where your daughter was?” and “What kind of parents are you?” friends and family members would answer that Allie was a good kid, and the Loftises were good parents.
Tony said parents should even assume their child has access to the Internet and post comments directly to them: “We desperately want you back."
“If you don’t communicate this, people assume you don’t care, that you did something to drive her away,” said Tony. “Parents are the kid’s best advocate. Otherwise, people won’t work for you.”
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org