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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

April 5, 2014 at 8:28 PM

How Facebook found Hailey: Why this Seattle parent shared her search for her teen

"Thank you everyone! So happy she is home." - Marie Montemayor on Facebook, March 24

“Thank you everyone! So happy she is home.” – Marie Montemayor on Facebook, March 24. (Pic posted March 29)

One Sunday last month, Marie Montemayor cut back and forth through happy crowds at French Fest at Seattle Center. Not finding any place to charge her phone’s dead battery, she cried.

Two days earlier, at 4:30 p.m., she had told her 13-year-old daughter on that phone that she was making spaghetti for dinner. She hadn’t heard from Hailey since.

After hours of searching her Queen Anne neighborhood with her husband, texting and calling friends, family and the police until she no longer could, Marie came home, collapsed in front of her computer and did what she’d thought about doing all weekend.

She asked for help on Facebook.

I know this because I saw it. From the same 34-year-old woman with mermaid-purple hair who shares pictures of her kids and her city with this candid whimsy came a photo of Hailey — her long hair falling from her shoulders — captioned with desperation.

It’s been two days. We love her so much. Please help.

By lunchtime Monday, Marie knew where Hailey was. By afternoon, she snuggled next to her daughter, rubbing her back while they both came to grips with a difficult weekend.

Missing Persons Detective Tanya Kinney of the Seattle Police Department called Marie on Monday with Hailey’s location — the home of a boy from another school whose mother had no idea Hailey had run away.

"#seattle friends, can you please share this image? My daughter has been missing since Friday. At first we assumed it was a teenage fit but now we haven't heard from her in two days. ... (as you can imagine my heart is in pieces right now ...)" - Marie Montemayor on Facebook, March 23.

“#seattle friends, can you please share this image? My daughter has been missing since Friday. At first we assumed it was a teenage fit but now we haven’t heard from her in two days. … (as you can imagine my heart is in pieces right now …)” – Marie Montemayor on Facebook, March 23.

But by then, Marie already knew.

Hailey had stumbled on the post with more than 200 upvotes that one of Marie’s Facebook friends, Crystal Fincher, had put on Reddit. She had found the more than 50 200 retweets that another friend, Elaine Smith, had sparked on Twitter on her behalf. She didn’t see the more than 900 shares her mother’s call for help got on Facebook, but she didn’t need to.

Hailey called her friend, who called Marie: Hailey was OK. And all of Marie’s 260 Facebook friends, along with many of our friends, their friends and their friends, shared her relief.

By now, sharing even a private problem with legions of people online who can offer sympathy, support or even direct help isn’t a fad or an alternative. It’s another tool in the toolbox.

Sometimes, it’s the best one we have.

The weekend Hailey disappeared, Marie and her husband, Phil, felt helpless. During the day, they’d walk — everywhere. They don’t own a car. At night, they’d lie in bed, phone ringers on, minds racing. Marie remembers watching Phil get up, saying nothing, to stare out the window.

911 always picks up, but as Marie learned to her frustration, Missing Persons doesn’t work on weekends. Unless there is clear evidence that someone is in immediate danger, the police tell parents to sit tight until office hours resume on Monday.
The Internet puts up no such barriers. That made all the difference.

“I had eyes and ears everywhere, people looking in places I couldn’t be, doing things the police couldn’t do,” Marie said.

Marie knows both sides of the runaway mess. She was 13 herself and terrified the first time she left home. It wouldn’t be the last. Time and again, police would knock on doors, find her and drag her home to her father, whose pain at her disappearances took her years to understand. At 15, she got pregnant and had her now 18-year-old son, Michael, a young man so unlike his mom at that age that he calls her when people are drinking at parties.

“I fight for my kids,” Marie said. “My goal is to make sure they don’t turn into a sad statistic like I did.”

But she was afraid, hovering over her computer screen that Sunday, considering whether or not to make her private agony public. You tell people your teenager ran away, they’re going to think it’s because of something at home, something that’s your fault.

What if no one took her plea seriously?

"WHAT? Make her stop growing." - Marie Montemayor on Facebook, March 26.

“WHAT? Make her stop growing.” – Marie Montemayor on Facebook, March 26.

But every hour that went by made the agony worse.

Ten minutes after she posted her plea, Marie knew she’d done the right thing. Friends started sharing the photo. Her phone started buzzing with ideas and support. People promised to keep a lookout, wherever they were. One friend, Jess Estrada, suggested she set her post to “public” so it reached as far as it could. Another friend from far away offered to fly to Seattle and help look.

While Missing Persons collected phone messages, Marie collected a team.

On Monday, Detective Kinney got on the case and solved it. Marie picked up her daughter, but it was the support, the worry, the impact her disappearance was having on so many people that led Hailey home. Why she left is complicated, but it had nothing to do with any anger toward her mom or stepdad. They’d been fine before she disappeared. It had all begun with a really, really bad day at school.

Seeing the Reddit post, then all those tweets, Hailey told her mom, was like seeing a story of her life that didn’t match her own reality. It wasn’t who she was. It wasn’t what she wanted. It made her realize it was past time she was home.

And Marie wonders: If her father had been able to show her, 20 years ago, that impact she had that so many teens miss, would she have done things differently?

Seattle Police Department spokeswoman Renee Witt commended Marie for using a tool police often use themselves. When people help each other, it turns out, everyone wins.

Glad you’re home, Hailey.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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