Over two dozen children have gone missing in Cleveland in the first two weeks of May, police officials said, raising the alarm about the “extraordinary” surge of disappearances in the area.
At least 27 kids have been reported missing between 2 and 16 May, Newburgh Heights police chief John Majoy said.
The police chief, who also serves as board president for the organisation Cleveland Missing, warned that the disappearances of children aged 12-17 years have reached "unprecedented levels" in 2023.
"There's always peaks and valleys with missing persons, but this year it seems like an extraordinary year," Mr Majoy told Fox News.
"For some reason, in 2023, we've seen a lot more than we normally see, which is troubling in part because we don't know what's going on with some of these kids, whether they're being trafficked or whether they're involved in gang activity or drugs."
According to the police chief, the majority of the cases were likely runaways, but he feared that young teenagers could also have fallen victim to predators, who could be “wolves in sheep’s clothing".
There were a total of 56 active missing children cases in Cleveland as of mid-May.
Most of the disappearances do not make the news unless there is an Amber Alert, he lamented, adding that solving the cases becomes difficult because often there is a lack of photos of the victims.
Mr Majoy emphasised that he has never seen such high numbers of missing children in his 33-year career.
"It's a silent crime that happens right under our noses," he said.
"The problem is where are they? Where do they go? They can be in a drug house or farmed to prostitution or caught up in drug trafficking or gangs.”
He added that when teenagers become desperate, they join gangs for protection, which leads to initiation crimes like carjackings and robberies, they sell their bodies, or they use drugs.
In an effort to combat the rise in disappearances in Cleveland and other areas in northern Ohio, US Marshals launched “Operation We Will Find You” in May.
“The Marshals Service is fully committed to assisting federal, state, and local agencies with locating and recovering endangered missing children,” US marshal Pete Elliott said in a statement, according to the New York Post.
Investigators combed through cases in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron and other surrounding counties to find the missing childen, which led to locating some of the minors as far away as California and Arizona.
“The epidemic of missing children in our country needs a spotlight, it needs our focus. We hope operations like this sharpen that focus. Every child deserves a safe environment to grow up in, and we are dedicated to helping provide that for the children and families in Northern Ohio.”
In 2022, more than 15,000 children were reported missing in Ohio and four of them were found dead.
According to a report by state's attorney general Dave Yost, only five of the children had a stranger kidnap them, while 34 were cases were of abductions by a noncustodial parent.
The authorities were able to find 96 per cent of the children, but 615 went into 2023 still missing.