There’s a small but mighty entity within the state’s Crime Prevention and Justice Assistance Division dedicated to the plight of Hawai‘i’s keiki. Its mission: to locate the thousands of children reported missing in Hawai‘i each year and recover them before something tragic happens.
Leading the valiant effort are Amanda Leonard, coordinator for the state Department of the Attorney General’s Missing Child Center-Hawai‘i, and assistant coordinator Kaleilani Grant — whose exemplary work in the islands is getting noticed across the country.
Both were honored with the U.S. Department of Justice Child Protection Award for their efforts with Operation Shine the Light, which resulted in the recovery of five endangered runaway teens from the foster care system. So effective was the multiagency operation that it garnered national attention — and an accolade to boot.
“We couldn’t have done it without our partners,” says Grant. “Seeing the community (and) different agencies coming together to keep our community safe and keep keiki of Hawai‘i safe is just so amazing.”
The specialized criminal justice program works closely with the four county police departments, Hawai‘i Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, FBI, Homeland Security, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and the Department of Justice and its national AMBER alert program (locally, it’s the MAILE AMBER Alert) — among countless others.
“Like Kalei said, we don’t do this alone,” Leonard adds. “This is a collective effort of local, state and federal law enforcement partners.”
While the work most definitely is a team effort, a lot falls on the shoulders of Missing Children Hawai‘i’s dynamic duo, who are the only two in their department. With so much ground to cover and so many moving parts, being able to work together is paramount.
“Our individual strengths contribute to this team, and we are able to have this consistent rhythm in our work to be able to balance it all,” says Grant.
Leonard got her start in the field as a volunteer at Children’s Justice Center of O‘ahu. After graduating from University of Hawai‘i William S. Richardson School of Law in 2011, she clerked for judges at family court, and after that worked at boutique family law firm Hartley & McGehee LLP in Kailua as an associate attorney.
“My background is primarily in family law, which is definitely useful in this position, working parental or family abduction cases and supporting parents in crisis,” explains Leonard, a Kailua resident who graduated from Kalāheo High.
Grant started with Missing Child Center-Hawai‘i in 2018, shortly after Leonard, when the assistant coordinator position opened up. As a survivor of the sex trafficking trade, it’s important for her to make sure no other children have to experience what she has.
“It’s been over a decade that I’ve been working in the anti-human trafficking field,” says Grant, who grew up in ‘Aiea and attended Lanakila Baptist School. “For myself, it is so important for me to continue in the work that I do. My message is to give hope.
“People ask all the time, ‘How can you do this type of work? It’s so depressing because of some of the stories.’ But, really, that’s what keeps us going,” she continues. “We want to prevent any hardship from happening.”
The hardship she speaks of is often not thought of as common in Hawai‘i.
“People think that it can’t happen here,” Grant says. “They put it out of their minds, they think that Hawai‘i is excluded.”
But that’s not necessarily true. Thankfully, stranger abductions are rare in the state, but family/parent abductions are common in the 808. And that’s the message Missing Child Center-Hawai‘i wants to get out to the community: Be proactive and aware.
“Yes, this can happen and it does,” Grant continues. “As we talk about Hawai‘i, having it be our kuleana, our responsibility. For myself and Amanda, this is just who we are, looking out for the keiki of our state, caring for the well-being of families.”
“That’s perfectly said,” Leonard chimes in. “It’s more than a job to us. It’s really who we are and how we want to use our expertise and our skills for the benefit of other parents and the benefit of children.”
So, while their caseloads are crazy — there are thousands of reports of endangered runaways a year that could potentially be a “must respond” for Leonard and Grant — it’s equally as important for them and Missing Child Center-Hawai‘i to focus on prevention and education.
“If you prevent a child from running away, you can prevent them from being victims of crime,” says Leonard. “Sometimes we go and speak at events; we do a lot of trainings with law enforcement and families. We find that to be a very important use of our limited time when we do have to step away from our caseload.
“This is not a law enforcement problem — this is a community problem. We need to continually raise awareness and educate parents because the folks that are most able to protect kids are their own parents.”
For more information and educational resources, visit missingkids.org.
When a child goes missing, parents and guardians should report it to the police as soon as possible — there is no waiting period. It’s also important to call Missing Child Center-Hawai‘i at 808-586-1449, as well as National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 800-843-5678.
SAFE SCREEN TIME
Technology is more commonplace now than ever before, and most children have some sort of smart device with them at all times. That ease of connectivity is great for staying in touch with loved ones, but also provides strangers with potential access, even from afar.
“Especially during the pandemic, we heard stories from all around the country of predators contacting children through the computer or phone,” recalls Amanda Leonard, coordinator for the state Department of the Attorney General’s Missing Child Center-Hawai‘i.
She, along with assistant coordinator Kaleilani Grant, encourage parents to also protect their children from strangers in the virtual sphere.
“Some parents aren’t informed of how to even utilize social media and online platforms,” Grant says. “But that is how strangers also approach children and try to connect with them.”