News


Florida Missing Children’s Day promotes child safety, celebrates unsung heroes

9/10/2018
 
For Immediate Release
September 10, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – First Lady Ann Scott, along with Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, joined hundreds of law enforcement personnel, public officials and citizens today for the 2018 Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony in Tallahassee. The annual event is held to remember Florida’s missing children, recognize the state’s efforts in child protection and educate Floridians on child safety and abduction prevention.

In 2017, more than 32,000 incidents of missing children were reported to Florida law enforcement agencies, while 51 Missing Child Alerts and 10 AMBER Alerts were issued statewide. Since its inception, 224 AMBER Alerts have been issued, including six so far this year. Florida AMBER Alerts have directly aided in the rescue of 66 children.

Governor Rick Scott said, “It is so important to make the safety of Florida’s children a top priority in our state. Ann and I pray for each of the parents and loved ones of those who have gone through the unimaginable pain of missing a child. We also say a special prayer for our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day in order to protect our families.”

First Lady Ann Scott said, “As a parent and grandparent, Missing Children’s Day is a solemn reminder that no family should have to endure the heartache of a missing child. I pray for continued strength and healing for the families, and the safe return of the loved ones still separated from their families.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said, “Missing Children’s Day is a reminder that we should all continue to pray for the safe return of all missing children and comfort for their parents. We can never lose hope or stop searching. Our law enforcement community works diligently to help reunite families and bring justice to anyone who would harm a child.”

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said: “Today we remember Florida’s children, and the brave men and women who work every day to bring them home. Our first responders’ dedication to not only protecting our kids but also raising awareness on child abduction prevention is inspiring. We can’t thank them enough for their service to Florida families and protecting our future generations.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam said, “My prayers are with the families and loved ones of our missing children, and I’m grateful for our dedicated law enforcement officers who work tirelessly to protect our most vulnerable residents.”

FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said, “The safety and security of Florida’s children continues to be a major priority for FDLE, as is the successful recovery of those who are missing. We are grateful for the efforts of our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners in keeping our children safe and apprehending those who would do them harm.”

During a formal ceremony, Commissioner Swearingen recognized citizens, canine trailing teams and law enforcement officers for their exemplary efforts in missing children investigations.

The following individuals are recipients of the 2018 Florida Missing Children’s Day Awards:

Citizen of the Year
Winner: Malgorzata Mroz, Bradenton
Ms. Mroz was working at a hotel when she observed a very young girl enter with an older male, who was showing signs of intimate affection. Ms. Mroz researched the man’s name on the internet and realized he was a registered sex offender out of North Carolina. She then alerted local law enforcement who responded and discovered the man was a 51-year-old sex offender (convicted of rape of a minor) who picked up a 17-year-old runaway at a truck-stop in Missouri. The child was taken into state custody and later returned to her family.

Combatting Human Trafficking Award
Winner: Bernadette Maher, Miami Beach Police Department
Detective Maher was responsible for 45% of the human trafficking arrests prosecuted by the State Attorney’s Office in Miami during 2017. Between January 2017 and April 2018, Detective Maher identified and arrested more than 40 pimps and human trafficking suspects, including several who were engaged in the prostitution and trafficking of underage victims.

Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Agent Mike Spadafora, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office
Agent Spadafora conducted a months-long online investigation into a suspect who said he wanted to sexually abuse children. After communicating with Agent Spadafora for several months, the suspect, who was residing outside of the United States, expressed a desire to travel to Brevard County to abuse a child he believed was in Spadafora’s custody. After liaising with Homeland Security Investigations, Agent Spadafora discovered that the suspect was an executive of a major European company, which allowed him to travel with ease and potentially abuse child victims across the globe. When Agent Spadafora picked the executive up from the airport, the suspect admitted his desire to sexually abuse the fictitious child and also admitted to abusing other children. Upon entering Brevard County, the suspect was arrested and made a full confession. Six months later, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

State/Federal Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Trooper Matthew Finley, Florida Highway Patrol, Troop G
In June 2017, an AMBER Alert was issued for a 14-year-old girl who was taken from her home by an 18-year-old family friend without her parents’ consent. The suspect was attempting to take her to Alabama. While patrolling the northbound traffic in Columbia County, Trooper Finley observed a vehicle that matched the description provided in the AMBER Alert. After calling in the tag number and confirming it was the vehicle in question, Trooper Finley followed the car into Hamilton County and pulled the driver—and five other occupants—over. It was determined that the car’s tag was stolen as well. All adult passengers were arrested for petit theft and the family friend of the missing girl was arrested for interfering with custody. The 14-year-old girl was recovered safely inside the car.

Jimmy Ryce K9 Trailing Team of the Year
Winner: Deputy John Locklin and K9 Panzer, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office
The Altamonte Springs Police Department responded to a school in reference to a missing 10-year-old autistic child who had wandered off campus. The child had been missing for about five minutes at the time of the call and had never previously left campus before. ASPD requested that a canine tracking team be dispatched to the area. Deputy John Locklin and K9 Panzer arrived on scene along with the Seminole County Sheriff Office Alert 1 helicopter, which always assists canine teams on the ground. A witness informed police that the child may have been walking toward the softball complex area. K9 Panzer was provided scent from the child’s backpack and placed on a southbound track near the complex while Alert 1 aircraft crew began to visually search the area in front of the projected tracking path. Using the scent trail and intel from the flight crew, Deputy Locklin and K9 Panzer made contact with and safely recovered the child in a wooded area nearby.

Law Enforcement Task Force of the Year
Winner: Internet Crimes Against Children Unit, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office
  • Lieutenant Rob Vitaliano
  • Agent Mike Spadafora
  • Agent Aja Stake
  • Agent Alex Sorokin
The Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Unit of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) discovered a loophole that was allowing suspected sex offenders the opportunity to destroy evidence. When evidence subpoenas were issued to internet service providers, the ISPs were notifying their customer that the account was under investigation, sometimes giving the suspect a full ten days’ notice and time to destroy evidence. The unit began investigating the issue and discovered it was affecting investigations nationwide. As a result, a bill was drafted that would require ISP providers to not disclose receipt of a subpoena related to child exploitation and sex related crimes for 180 days. Lt. Vitaliano and Agent Spadafora testified numerous times before the legislature. BCSO agents joined forces with the FDLE, the Attorney General’s Office, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Prosecutors Association, and the Florida Police Chiefs Association in support of the bill, which was passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law this year.

John and Revé Walsh Award
Winner: Joy Mahler, Venice
As the President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast for 35 years, Joy Mahler has championed disadvantaged children’s rights to a life of safety, stability, and opportunity. Over the years, Ms. Mahler has launched various one-to-one mentoring initiatives that she and the organization specially designed to meet the unique needs of at-risk youth. These initiatives have supported pregnant girls, high school students at high risk of dropping out of school, youths who are involved in the juvenile justice system and children who have felt the shame and loneliness of having a parent in prison, among others. Under Ms. Mahler’s leadership and direction, more than 90 percent of the at-risk children the agency serves improve or maintain satisfactory academic achievement, reap self-confidence gains, and avoid risky behaviors. Among mentored high school students, 95 percent graduate from high school and 91 percent of graduates furthered their education, entered the military, or obtained employment. BBBSSC has earned many accolades, including Charity Navigator’s highest rating. It was also recognized this year by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America with the Gold Standard Award for Team Leadership and Quality Community Programming. The organization served 55 children in the year that Ms. Mahler became the President/CEO. This past year, BBBSSC served a record 1,869 children in 10 Florida counties.

Evelyn D. Williams Memorial Award
Winner: Dawn Mikola, Tallahassee
Ms. Mikola is a former member of the FDLE Missing Endangered Persons Information Clearinghouse (MEPIC) who left in 2011 to become a full-time victim advocate with the Florida Parole Commission’s Victim Services Unit. During her time at FDLE she was responsible for managing missing child cases for the Miami Region, coordinating the MEPIC Advisory Board and serving as coordinator for Florida Missing Children’s Day. The success of past Missing Children’s Day ceremonies and its continued existence today, can be attributed to Dawn’s ongoing efforts. Since leaving FDLE, Dawn has continued to serve as a victim advocate for the event, providing much needed emotional support to families.

To see a current list of unsolved AMBER Alert cases, please visit: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentAlerts.asp.

A current list of unsolved Missing Child Alert cases can be found here: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentMCAlerts.asp.

FDLE invites 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.

For Further Information Contact:
Gretl Plessinger, Jessica Cary, Jeremy Burns or Angela Starke
FDLE Office of Public Information
(850) 410-7001