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Two dozen teens have gone missing from Culpeper

The town of Culpeper in rural northern Virginia has a population of just over 20,000. Surrounding Culpeper County is home to 54,000.
Randi B. Hagi
The town of Culpeper in rural northern Virginia has a population of just over 20,000. Surrounding Culpeper County is home to 54,000.

Leer este artículo en español aquí.

In just over two years, two dozen Guatemalan teens have gone missing from the Culpeper area. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi has been looking into their cases.

Sixteen-year-old Cesar left his uncle's house in Culpeper with just a small backpack. Fifteen-year-old Ingrid left her guardian's home wearing gold hoop earrings, possibly to join a boyfriend in Texas. Sixteen-year-old Horlandina left her aunt's home with her nine-month-old baby and most of their personal belongings. Seventeen-year-old Edgar was last seen walking to the laundromat with a basket of clothes.

At least 24 teenage children – 16 boys and eight girls – have gone missing from the Culpeper area since July of 2021. Just two appear to have been found. They join the more than 85,000 kids who have arrived at the southern border as unaccompanied children, but whom the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has since lost contact with, as New York Times reporter Hannah Dreierfound in an investigation into migrant child labor.

I found that since 2015, Guatemala has been the most common country of origin for unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the United States, according to federal data. International agencies UNICEF and UNHCR report that the youth come to the U.S. fleeing violence, extreme poverty, or with the express purpose of making money to help support their struggling families back home.

East of the Blue Ridge, the town of Culpeper, according to the Census Bureau, is 17% Latino. It has a sizable Guatemalan population – meaning there are a lot of potential sponsors for those unaccompanied children, whether relatives or just fellow chapines. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that, between October 2020 and June 2023, 510 unaccompanied minors were placed with sponsors in Culpeper County.

Those who have gone missing are reported to local law enforcement by their sponsors, although those reports are sometimes made months after the teen has disappeared, if the sponsor is unaware that law enforcement should be notified or unconcerned for the teen's whereabouts.

Guatemala, nicknamed "el país de la eterna primavera," or "land of eternal springtime," is home to more than 20 indigenous peoples.
Randi B. Hagi
Guatemala, nicknamed "el país de la eterna primavera," or "land of eternal springtime," is home to more than 20 indigenous peoples.

What we know about the Culpeper kids

A source familiar with these cases who spoke with WMRA on the condition of anonymity said that many sponsors of the missing teens have said the kids came to the U.S. to find work, and that's what they leave Culpeper to pursue. Most or all of them are of Mayan descent, and speak a variety of languages, although most know Spanish, too.

Based on information available in missing juvenile posters, the average age of the kids is 16. The youngest to run away was 13-year-old Fredy, as the Culpeper Times reported, although a source told WMRA that he had been found. A 17-year-old girl named Ofelia has also been located, according to her poster.

The source was not aware of any coordination among the kids who ran away. The posters do show that six of the eight girls who left were believed to be traveling with or meeting a boyfriend. Three boys left with either a cousin or an unknown individual, but the rest are traveling alone, or their sponsor was not aware of any companions.

Half of the sponsors said they did not know where the teens intended to go. The other half cited a variety of possible destinations, with Houston, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Alabama each being mentioned twice.

Reporting this story has been particularly challenging due to the reticence of potential sources. Two local law enforcement agencies declined to go on the record, and did not put WMRA in touch with any of the sponsors. The federal Administration for Children and Families, where the Office of Refugee Resettlement is housed, did not respond to multiple calls requesting information. Virginia's State Refugee Coordinator, Seyoum Berhe, did not respond to my calls. Culpeper County Public Schools representatives said they couldn't share information about their students. Immigrants' rights and legal aid groups declined to do interviews.

Culpeper became home to more than 500 unaccompanied children between October 2020 and June of this year.
Randi B. Hagi
Culpeper became home to more than 500 unaccompanied children between October 2020 and June of this year.

The FOIA saga

Even getting the federal government to respond to a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request submitted last August, required WMRA's attorney to contact the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the Department of Justice, and Senator Tim Kaine's office. More than three months after the request was submitted, ACF acknowledged its receipt. But it took more than a year from the date of submission, and repeated requests for updates, for records to be released to WMRA. And after all that, what we received did not shed much light on the situation.

I requested copies of any communications between the ACF's Office of Refugee Resettlement and local law enforcement regarding "unaccompanied minors who were placed in homes in the Culpeper, Virginia area and then reported missing in the last two years." What I received was 67 pages of repetitive email chains between an ACF field specialist; a field office juvenile coordinator with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE; and other local and federal authorities. The discussion centered around setting up two meetings last year on human trafficking and sex trafficking awareness, education, and outreach.

In one email from April 2022, the ACF field specialist asks an "officer" whose name and email are redacted to "please provide a list of names and alien numbers for the nine missing UC [that means “unaccompanied children”] in Culpeper." That is the only mention of the missing teens in the exchanges.

Interestingly, in another copy of that message included in the email chains, part of that sentence was redacted. The agency's response letter to WMRA explained that, to redact that phrase, ICE invoked a FOIA exemption having to do with technical law enforcement information that would reveal investigation procedures. The rest of the redactions appear to be the names and contact information of various people involved with the meetings.

What can we infer?

Based on the New York Times investigation, the children may have found work in one of the many dangerous industries found to hire underaged labor, such as manufacturing, construction, and food processing. A few states the Culpeper kids mentioned to their sponsors showed up in that investigation, such as Alabama, where migrant children have been found working in meat plants, sock factories, and on roofs.

Some of the Culpeper kids, while still considered missing by local precincts, have turned 18 since running away. They're legal adults, and, if found, have the right to work and live separately from the sponsors who were charged with their care. The other teens, despite still being juveniles by American standards, are likely also shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood in a foreign land.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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