“I can discuss to you and you understand what I am going via”

It’s been a good year since 16-year-old Kristen Galvan disappeared from her grandmother’s house in the spring, and her mother Robyn Bennett has exhausted every opportunity to find her – she hired a private investigator, organized poster campaigns, and is still calling to the police every day for updates.

Still, Bennett wanted to attend the Texas Center’s annual Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday for no reason other than to feel the support of other people who understand the pain of a family member disappearing .

“I can call some of the other mothers or the other mothers who miss children and I can talk to them and they’ll know what I’m going through,” said Bennett. “It’s an open wound, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare.”

The Texas Center for the Missing has been running the Missing in Harris County Day since 2015 when the group took it over from the Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences. The event, which was originally supposed to be in person, went online at the last minute as Harris County returned to the highest COVID-19 threat level.

Since 2015, the Missing in Harris County Day has resulted in six missing people being safely returned to their families and 13 more identified after their deaths, the center said.

Over 10,500 people were reported missing in Harris County last year, including 7,355 children, according to statistics the center obtained from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

While the department was unavailable on Saturday for comment on the number of these people, Harris County reserve officer Denise O’Leary said 3,355 were under the jurisdiction of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which resolved 3,332 cases last year. However, O’Leary was careful that the cases resolved in 2020 could also include people missing in previous years.

The Center for the Missing opened the events on Saturday with a panel of law enforcement officers from various Harris County jurisdictions explaining the best ways for investigators to help locate loved ones. They urged family members to be honest about everything they knew about the missing person, including illegal activities, and to try to track down any digital information about the person that would otherwise not be available without an arrest warrant.

“Failure to focus on the family from the start can affect the course of the investigation, and when you have a missing person, time is of the essence,” said O’Leary. “Law enforcement agencies are not here to convict the family.”

Afterwards, families of missing persons gathered in a public podium to discuss their experiences in finding relatives and to exchange tips on what worked and what did not work. Alice Almendarez and David Fritts discussed the “John and Joseph Law” – named after Almendarez ‘father and Fritts’ son respectively – which was signed by Governor Greg Abbott on June 4th.

The new law requires any agency that receives a missing person report to submit the case to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUs within 60 days of receiving the report, and requires medical assessors and magistrates of the peace to do the same for unidentified bodies.

Almendarez’s father, John, went missing in June 2002 and was found dead in Buffalo Bayou a month later. He was listed in the morgue as an unidentified Hispanic male for two years before being buried in death.

“I realized that something needed to be done and more people needed to know about NamUs. They asked HPD why I wasn’t told about NamUs in 2010 when I filed another missing person report and they said, ‘Well, she didn’t ask,’ ”said Almendarez. “Well, I didn’t know what to ask … I no longer knew what to do or who to go to.”

In the case of Kristen Galvan, Bennett is certain that her daughter is not dead but is a victim of human trafficking. The latest development came in March when she was told there was an ad for her daughter online in Atlanta. She said she hadn’t heard a beep since then, but still calls every day.

“Somebody must have seen her or know where Kristen is,” said Bennett. “Somebody picked her up that night and we have to find her.”

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