Earlier this summer, a missing 15-year-old girl named Atiz Garcia returned to her family in the Dallas-Ft. Worth market after more than a year away. While Garcia and her mother declined to discuss either why she left or why she returned, Garcia came back soon after a digital billboard that included her picture and description had been put on display in the area.
The out-of-home sign was one of hundreds in Texas that are part of the Clear Channel Outdoor (CCO) network. The company is putting its resources to work to help with some troubling community problems -- among them missing children.
The missing children problem in Texas really hits home for the company, which is headquartered in San Antonio. "In the last five or six years, this program has really gained momentum, and we've seen kids reunited with their families every year," said Lee Vela, Vice President, Public Affairs, Clear Channel Outdoor-Houston. "Last year alone, we had four children -- three in San Antonio and one in Houston -- that were brought home."
CCO launched the missing children program more than a decade ago. Partnering with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Texas Center for the Missing, the company works with local law enforcement in Dallas-Ft. Worth, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio to highlight missing children cases and post them on digital billboards around the cities.
The billboards are mounted each year to coincide with National Missing Children's Day on May 25, and then they continue to run for 30 days after that. That's not all: CCO also works with Texas EquuSearch to showcase a different case every month of the year. And it works with local law enforcement to mount Amber Alerts on digital billboards whenever a child is abducted.
There are currently about 33,000 reported missing children in Texas. Many of them are runaways; others are victims of human trafficking. Police get calls about five or six kids every day, according to Detective Billy Harris of the Dallas Police Department.
"I think the billboards are a good idea," said Harris. "With runaways, it's hard to determine why they leave. Some of them actually do have issues at home that they have to get away from. Others just don't want to follow the rules, so they leave. And we do run into cases of human trafficking. Our ultimate goal is to bring them all back home."
To keep the messages in the forefront, each one includes a photo of the missing child (aged 17 or younger) as well as a photo that represents what the child might look like at an older age in cases where they've been missing for a while. Each child's image and message runs thousands of times per day in a given market for the duration of the campaign.
"We've found that once we start these campaigns, they are very successful, and they lead to ongoing programs," Vela said.
Clear Channel also runs messages intended to help find missing children across its national network of digital billboards, including in the nation's largest markets -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. According to the FBI, in 2021 there were 337,195 missing kids entered into the law enforcement agency's National Crime Information Center.
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