Florida’s missing children are the focus of today’s Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony at the Capitol. The annual event is held to remember Florida’s missing children, to recognize the state’s efforts in child protection and to educate Floridians on child safety and abduction prevention.
Last year, more than 25,000 incidents of missing children were reported to Florida law enforcement agencies, while 48 Missing Child Alerts and 10 AMBER Alerts were issued statewide. Since its inception, 278 AMBER Alerts have been issued, including nine so far this year. Florida AMBER Alerts have directly aided in the rescue of 81 children.
Governor Ron DeSantis said, “Every day, we are reminded of how important the mission is of protecting Florida’s children. It is because of the selflessness and heroism of our dedicated law enforcement and first responders that the lives of children and Floridians across the state are saved.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody said, “There is nothing more terrifying for a parent than having a child go missing. Justin and I pray for every parent going through this nightmare and for our law enforcement officers working tirelessly to locate missing children and reunite families.”
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said, “As a father of two, the mere thought of a missing child sends chills down my back. It’s a fear that every parent has, and my heart goes out to the families who have experienced this unimaginable tragedy. In Florida, our law enforcement community works around the clock to protect missing and endangered children and ensure they are returned quickly and safely to their families. I’m so grateful for the public servants and law enforcement personnel who have shown extraordinary efforts in protecting Florida’s children, and I’m honored to help highlight the importance of teaching child safety education throughout our state.”
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried said, “To protect children is to protect our future, which is why any time a child goes missing it impacts not only their family, but their entire community. As we remember and pray for the safety of Florida’s missing children, let us rededicate our efforts to raise awareness of abduction prevention and child safety. Today, we also recognize the heroic work of those that protect, rescue, and reunite children with their families. I am so thankful for all our law enforcement officers who serve our communities, helping families during unimaginably difficult times and working tirelessly to bring missing children home safely.”
FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass said, “Today we honor the memories of the children who have been taken from us and reaffirm our promise that we will never abandon the search for them. I am grateful for our Florida law enforcement community and their dedication to the safety of our children.”
During a formal ceremony, Commissioner Glass recognized citizens, canine trailing teams and law enforcement officers for their exemplary efforts in missing children investigations.
The following individuals are recipients of the 2022 Florida Missing Children’s Day Awards:
Mr. Cass Castillo, Assistant Statewide Prosecutor, Office of Attorney General Ashley Moody
When remains are never recovered, cases can be very difficult to prosecute, but where others decline, Cass Castillo meets this challenge head on. Representing lost women and children, his efforts resulted in the successful conviction of two Florida serial killers despite the homicide victims’ remains never being found.
John and Revé Walsh Award
Florida Highway Patrol, Troop A
The Florida Highway Patrol’s Troop A, in the Florida Panhandle, demonstrates outstanding dedication in keeping children safe. From reducing the response time to calls regarding missing and endangered children to off-duty assistance to the direct recovery of missing children and human trafficking victims, Troop A demonstrates a commitment to protecting children and investigating suspects who would do them harm.
Evelyn Williams Memorial Award
Investigator Kevin Allen. Alachua County Sheriff’s Office
Kevin Allen investigates missing children and adults, unidentified human remains and unsolved homicides. He was the lead investigator in two cases that resulted in the convictions of two serial killers, one case involving children. He has also spent countless hours working to identify unidentified remains, locating missing persons or their remains, and working leads in multiple cold cases. His efforts contribute greatly to the safety of Florida’s children.
Citizen of the Year
Ms. Robin Hudak, Tampa Bay Regional Communications Center
In March 2022, the Tampa Bay Regional Communications Center received a phone call regarding a non-custodial parental abducting three children aged 6, 7 and 8 without authorization. When it was discovered the children were on I-75 heading north, Duty Officer Hudak immediately contacted all available units to respond and issued a BOLO.
When the suspect’s vehicle left Hudak’s jurisdiction, she stayed on the line with the family to assist law enforcement. The suspect and children were found a Marion County rest area. The children were found safe and the suspect was taken into custody. The entire incident lasted approximately an hour. Hudak’s relentless search for information and communication with the custodial parent resulted in a successful recovery.
Combatting Human Trafficking Award
Detectives Zoila Exclusa and Ingrid Ruiz, North Miami Beach Police Department
On the evening of Saturday, November 27, 2021, Detectives Exclusa and Ruiz were called to investigate a missing 15-year-old female who met someone online. The juvenile left willingly with an unidentified male. The next day, the juvenile called her mother crying before her phone was turned off. The detectives contacted the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Task Force, and the child and suspect were located in Pennsylvania. The detectives flew to Pennsylvania to escort the victim back to Florida. They also held a press conference with Spanish media providing a warning to other juveniles and parents about online safety. Without the detectives’ investigation and request for FBI intervention, the victim may not have been recovered safely and may have been trafficked. The juvenile was reunited with her mother within 72 hours of the detectives’ involvement.
Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Agent Aja Stake, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office
In June 2021, Agent Stake received a cyber tip forwarded from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) indicating a Brevard County man was abusing his 5-year-old daughter to produce and share images and videos of child sexual abuse.
Agent Stake immediately determined the child was in a safe location and then obtained the father’s confession regarding the sexual abuse and the distribution of child sexual abuse material on social media platforms. Her immediate action resulted in the father’s arrest on federal charges within five hours of receiving the tip.
State Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Trooper David Cox, Florida Highway Patrol
While patrolling in January 2021, Trooper Cox received a BOLO for a vehicle involved in the abduction of a 5-month-old child. The suspect was reportedly armed and possibly leaving Florida. Trooper Cox located the vehicle at a gas station attempting to refuel. In an unmarked vehicle, he pulled up to the gas pump behind the suspect’s vehicle and, using the element of surprise, arrested the suspect. With backup units arriving, Trooper Cox was able to identify a female suspect, and more importantly, the child in an unrestrained car seat. His actions avoided a high-speed car chase and potential injuries to civilians, and the child was recovered safely.
Jimmy Ryce K-9 Trailing Team of the Year
Deputy Jarvey Mesina-Berman and K-9 Ryley, Broward County Sheriff’s Office
Deputy Mesina-Berman and K-9 Ryley responded to a report of a missing juvenile with autism. The team tracked the juvenile for approximately a mile and a half before K-9 Ryley indicated the juvenile turned and crossed an eight-lane roadway with a large center median. The pair continued tracking the child and found the juvenile near an auto repair business. The team displayed outstanding professionalism and tenacity which resulted in the safe recovery of a child with autism.
Law Enforcement Task Force of the Year
Polk County Sheriff’s Office Task Force
In September 2021, a Polk County Sheriff’s Office investigation revealed two males were sexually abusing their children who were all under the age of 12. The investigation revealed that the mother of one of the children (a daycare worker) was aiding and covering for one of the males. This team’s efforts resulted in multiple charges against four people. The two male suspects were arrested for child pornography, lewd or lascivious molestation, capital sexual battery of a child, use of a child in sexual performance, and promoting sexual performance by a child. The victim’s mother was charged with aiding the suspect and obstructing the investigation. A local daycare owner where the child victim attended was arrested for accessory after the fact as she provided aid to the suspect to avoid capture by law enforcement.
Bus Operator of the Year
Ms. Stacey Kelly and Ms. Artavia Mann, Miami-Dade County Schools
Ms. Kelly finished dropping off her last student for the day on her assigned Miami-Dade County route when she saw a toddler standing alone in the street with no shoes. Ms. Mann stopped the bus immediately and retrieved the child. After parking in a safe location, the two women started looking around for someone that was searching for a toddler. No one was immediately located, and they contacted 911. The street where the child was found was a very busy area for traffic, and the toddler’s safety was in jeopardy. These two women ensured the safety of this child.
To see a current list of AMBER Alert cases, please visit: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentAlerts.asp.
A current list of Missing Child Alert cases can be found here: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentMCAlerts.asp.
We invite the public to follow FDLE on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up to receive Missing Child and AMBER Alerts via email or text message by visiting www.missingchildrenalert.com. For more information about the Florida Missing Children’s Day Foundation, visit www.fmcdf.org.