Note: A few hours after the publication of this story, Nya was found safe Tuesday night. Read more here.
The search has ramped up for a child with autism who’s still missing five days after leaving her home in Yorba Linda.
The parents of 14-year-old Nya Jingles — who is Black, 5-foot-9, weighs 160 pounds and has brown hair and eyes — are now on edge as their adopted daughter is out there somewhere without the medication she needs and ability to live on her own.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. says it’s currently working with the family to bring her home.
Yet some say this case captures complicated questions around how the system handles missing people — especially when those people live with mental health conditions or disabilities.
For example, Jingles’ mother Valanitta questioned — both in interviews and online — why the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. initially labeled her daughter as simply a ‘runaway,’ when she said the circumstances and potential danger to Nya went far beyond that.
The Sheriff’s Dept. now considers Jingles “at-risk,” and has since updated and increased the number of its online postings which now include information about Jingles’ disabilities and needed medication.
Sheriff spokesperson Carrie Braun said the department’s “decision to change her (Jingles) to an ‘at-risk missing person’ was because of additional information received by the family.”
But Valanitta Jingles in a Tuesday interview said officials knew about her daughter’s condition before that:
“They’re just now listing her as ‘at-risk’ due to what they say was additional information we provided, as if we just provided it — they knew this stuff five days ago.”
Alerting the public from day one that Jingles’ case was more than just a runaway kid would have sent a more effective message to the public, said Dr. Ronda Hampton, a psychologist and member of the nonprofit Reach for Mental Health Awareness, who is assisting the family.
“You can’t consider a girl with autism who is cognitively impaired a runaway. That puts her at risk,” Hampton said. “If the public knows she has these needs and is in danger — there will be an entirely different reaction.”
Jingles’ mother in a Monday Facebook Live broadcast said “when you have her labeled as a juvenile runaway, then the world thinks of her as this bad girl who’s run away from home and it’s easy to dismiss her. That’s not who Nya is.”
“I don’t know if someone grabbed her, I don’t know where she is,” she told Voice of OC in a later interview.
Since Nya Jingles was reported missing on April 16, Braun said the department has “devoted a large number of resources to locate Nya,” including air support, search and rescue, and the use of social media to get the word out.
The first 72 hours of a missing persons case are considered to be the most crucial. Five days after leaving her family’s home, Jingles’ name still doesn’t yield a result on the State of California’s online missing persons database.
Voice of OC searched Jingles’ name on the database at roughly 5 p.m. Tuesday. Her name still didn’t show up.
Braun said she would follow up when asked whether the Sheriff’s Dept. forwarded the necessary information to the state so that it could update the database.
Hampton said, in her experience as an advocate, the case speaks to systemic shortcomings in the ways missing persons — especially those with special mental health needs — are responded to.
“Often times if a kid leaves the home, agencies will just automatically call them a ‘runaway.’ It makes their job easier,” Hampton said, adding:
“Even if a kid is a runaway, we’re still under an obligation to search for them … If someone is missing under a set of criteria, there is a needed action that needs to happen — period.”
In Nya Jingles’ case, Hampton said, “there should have been a press conference already.”
Braun said like any investigation, a missing person’s case can change as more information comes to light and time goes on.
“At this point in time we do not plan to do a press conference, but obviously when additional information comes to us that could change,” she said.
While Jingles’ mother said she believes things could have been different, she acknowledged the Sheriff’s Dept. has been helping with searches and helicopter flyovers.
“Today they have called me back-to-back and it’s because I spent so much time asking people for help, making sure they take it seriously. I have been pulling out all the stops,” Jingles said. “At this juncture I’m more concerned about bringing her home.”
Braun emphasized this isn’t an issue of the department versus the family, and that “we are all working toward the same goal of finding Nya as soon as possible … we really need the public to contact dispatch and provide information to investigators … that can be done through OC Crime Stoppers.”
“We are all working together toward the same goal of bringing Nya to her family,” Braun said.
Valanitta Jingles describes her daughter as “very trusting, and very kind hearted.”
“Nya would give you the shirt off her back — literally,” Jingles said. “When her friends point to something of hers and go, ‘I like this,’ she’s like, ‘They can have it mom.’ She is the sweetest, kindest, soft-spoken beauty queen you could ever imagine … ‘Nya, can you help with this?’ She’s right there.”