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.Continued...