Her daughter’s Christmas phone call began teary, then turned adamant.
It broke Iyonna Burrell’s heart.
Fourteen-year-old A’Kiera Burrell-Sledge told her mother that she loved her, but she refused to say where she’s been staying.
“I know she is alive at least,” Iyonna Burrell said. “But she wouldn’t tell me where she was so that I could come get her.”
A’Kiera has been missing from a south Kansas City adolescent behavioral treatment center for more than a month. In the phone call, A’Kiera told her mother she was determined not to return to Crittenton Children’s Center. She called from a private number.
“I feel like a piece of me is gone,” Burrell said of her only child.
Don’t think A’Kiera is “just a runaway.”
A’Kiera can’t drive. She has no access to her mother’s finances and hasn’t contacted other relatives. Ask yourself what kind of person would be inclined to hide a 14-year-old girl from her family and authorities.
“Sometimes law enforcement and the public are still perceiving runaways as just that ‘a runaway,’
” said Lt. Kelli Bailiff of the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s as if they are not as important as another missing child.
“Well, runaways wind up dead, and runaways wind up in sex trafficking rings,” Bailiff continued. “Or they get hidden in homes for years upon end and end up having children by abusers.”
Amber Alerts go out often when a young child is believed to be in immediate danger. And well-connected parents often generate publicity through their own social networks when an older child flees the family home.
But when a child disappears out of state custody, from foster care or from a treatment center where they’ve been placed because of behavioral issues, the response is generally much less vocal.
Few, if any, people speak for these children. And it’s into that vacuum that A’Kiera has vanished.
Crittenton Center, which is operated by St. Luke’s Health System, has issued a basic statement to media that have inquired, emphasizing privacy laws in regard to juveniles.
That’s to be expected.
Yes, such silence can protect the child, the circumstances of how they entered programs like Crittenton. But it also can give cover for bad policy or errors by staff. And the hush of bureaucracy too often obscures awareness of these missing children.
As of Sunday night, A’Kiera still wasn’t listed on the National Center for Missing Exploited Children’s website.
That makes Bailiff, who works closely with the national organization, suspicious that procedures weren’t followed somewhere along the line, either with law enforcement, the courts or at Crittenton.
You know Bailiff’s face and voice. For years she has appeared on local television newscasts promoting awareness of missing children.
Usually, a child will be included on the national center’s website after being entered into the National Crime Information Center database. In the case of a child in state custody, a juvenile court usually has to issue a pickup order as part of the process.
Burrell said both steps were taken, but she worries not in a timely manner.
Bailiff also questions why the name of another teenage girl, believed to have escaped with A’Kiera, has never surfaced.
Alerted by The Star, Bailiff is now working on A’Kiera’s case.
That bit of solace is where Burrell has been living, frustrated by the lack of public outcry for her daughter’s welfare and the bureaucracy that seems to cut her out of the loop. She says she still has her parental rights to A’Kiera but not full guardianship.
She said that her daughter has previously been diagnosed with mood disorders. And that A’Kiera had a history of running away from home, but only for a few hours.
Burrell believed sending A’Kiera to Crittenton would keep her daughter safe.
“My heart is heavy,” Burrell said.
“We hate to tell you this, but your daughter is not here.”
These were the words Burrell says she heard from workers at Crittenton Center on Nov. 27, a day after her daughter disappeared. It was barely an hour before a scheduled meeting with family therapists.
A’Kiera had attended Center Middle School and might have tried to stay in touch with other students there. Otherwise, she’s leaving few clues.
On their last visit together, a few days before she went missing, Burrell said, her daughter seemed fine, cheerful. She took her daughter a new pair of Nike shoes and brownies.
A’Kiera had long braided hair when she disappeared but may have cut it by now. She blocked her mother from her Facebook page after she disappeared.
“I don’t think it is right that the mother can’t get any answers,” Missouri state Rep. Brandon Ellington said.
The legislator recently organized a forum to raise awareness of A’Kiera and other children who go missing, but especially those who run from state custody or treatment facilities.
Ellington would like to work with state social workers and contract facilities that care for children to establish clearer lines of communication, assurances that the word gets out and that a network can form for the community to join in the search.
That kind of network could do a lot of good in similar cases, which Bailiff says are shockingly common.
Pastor Anthony Andrews of Church of Faith International attended the forum and offered Burrell the church’s resources to search for her daughter.
He also offered to pay for more fliers, which Burrell had been printing and posting on her own.
Such help shouldn’t be necessary.
If A’Kiera’s case had flowed through the channels, the National Center for Missing Exploited Children and its staff should have been available to the mother, Bailiff said. That would have included emotional support, help dealing with law enforcement and publicity, including fliers.
Bailiff categorizes missing children into telling lists: non-family abductions, family abductions, runaways and throwaway kids.
Many throwaway children are running from foster homes. They don’t necessarily want to be out on the street but don’t think they have other options.
If broader family networks are dysfunctional, they might latch on to a relative or friend who doesn’t have their best interests in mind, Bailiff said.
That attitude is partly why some children wind up in sex trafficking, made to “pay” for their food and housing by prostituting themselves.
When Bailiff broadcasts their stories, she tends to say “officers are looking for” when the missing child is one who has run from a foster home or a facility.
She does not give the details, for good reason. Public apathy. Too many people tune out if they think it’s a “troubled” child, she said.
“The public shouldn’t care about who has custody,” Bailiff said. “They need to care that these kids are in danger.”
That hasn’t happened for A’Kiera.