Updated:CENTRAL FLORIDA,None —
The leading national database lists nearly 300 children as missing or exploited around Florida.
But WFTV discovered they're often hiding in plain sight, even as investigators and citizens search for them.
Since August, most people had seen 17-year-old Beth Knickerbocker's face only on missing posters, listing her as an endangered runaway from a Clermont foster home.
But WFTV found her with a few keystrokes in a matter of minutes on Facebook. And then tracked her down, pregnant at a house in Tampa.
WFTV asked Knickerbocker why she ran away from Clermont.
"'Cause I didn't like how they treated me," she said.
Then, there's Chassidy Odom, missing from Apopka, since 2008. But her Facebook profile shows she often "checks in" at the White Eagle Lounge in Bunnell.
Sixteen-year-old Braedyn Gallagher has been missing for only a month, but WFTV found his page recently updated to Facebook's newest format. In Knickerbocker's case, she even listed her city and a cell phone number.
So why couldn't police find them when WFTV could?
Law enforcement leaders said online profiles change almost hourly, and local police prioritize the most urgent of Florida's 39,000 missing person cases each year.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Carol Fredrick said social networks have become a "basic check" in these cases.
"It's important to use what the public is using. If that's the forum they're going to, we want to use it as well," Frederick said.
But Florida law still requires every missing person to be added to state and national databases within two hours, no matter how visible he or she may be online. Keeping all the names listed helps with chance encounters in the real world.
"If they're not in the system and law enforcement officer pulls them over, how would they know to look?" Frederick said.
Just because investigators find an online profile doesn't mean the missing person will respond. Investigators can't lie about their identity when messaging runaways.
Knickerbocker insisted she could have avoided detection for much longer than she did if she had wanted to stay hidden.
"Really, I don't think they actually look for you," Knickerbocker said.
WFTV wants to assure you that Knickerbocker is safe and getting the care she needs for her pregnancy.
She's off the missing list, and back on the state's radar with her address. She's living in a group home run by a church with several other girls.
In total, WFTV informally searched for about 12 to 15 names, spending about four or five hours finding the three teens mentioned in this piece.
Knickerbocker was easy -- her phone number was right there for us, posted on the web for months.