How did we end up in a world where autistic children get groomed to run away from homes?
Alicia Christiana Novarro is a happy-go-lucky teen. Born and raised in Glendale, Arizona, USA, Alicia grew up with her two siblings. People remembered her as the sweet, caring girl who shared a special bond with her mother.
Alicia is a smart kid. She got good grades and often helped her friends with their homework. While she had a behavioral coach to help her manage school, she did pretty well. She was set to go to college and had a bright future planned.
Yet, life wasn’t easy for the 15-year-old teen.
Alicia is autistic. As much as she enjoyed moving around independently, she’s a shy and orderly kid. She liked order in her life and wanted certain things to remain the same. For example, she ate food only from McDonald’s or IHOP. She liked to pick specific clothes for specific days. And when something changed in her routine, she got agitated.
Alicia also suffered from social anxiety. She preferred staying indoors with her family and close friends. She didn’t enjoy meeting too many people and would feel uncomfortable when she had to meet someone new.
She also had to change schools when things were too much for her. She tried online school for a while, but it didn’t work out in the end. Finally, in 2013, she enrolled in the Bourgade Catholic High School, and she was excited to be there. She made some good friends, and life seemed good.
Now Alicia is an energetic girl. But since she didn’t prefer the outdoors, she spent most of her time and energy playing online games and interacting with her online friends. Alicia felt like she had more control over her interactions online. Plus, she could talk about interesting topics from the comforts of her home.
Her parents were happy that she felt comfortable with her friends. It relieved them that their daughter had some social life, albeit being online. But little did they realize that this would be their scariest nightmare.
September 13, 2019, was a tough day for Alicia. She felt so anxious that she wanted to stay in bed all day. Alicia’s mother, Jessica, was concerned about Alicia’s mental health and let her stay home.
The next day, things were much better. Alicia and her mom even spent time together. They went to the parlor to get Alicia’s eyebrows groomed. They also went to the chocolate store and McDonald’s for lunch. It was a happy day for both of them.
Back home, at around 1 AM, Jessica was heading upstairs to bed when she bumped into Alicia. Since Alicia played online games, she’d often stay up late. However, she seemed surprised to find her mother awake that night. But eventually, they went back to their rooms, and Jessica fell asleep.
The next morning, Jessica woke up at around 7 am and started preparing breakfast for the family. She noticed the backdoor ajar. Initially, Jessica thought her husband had forgotten to close it properly. But when she asked him, he said he never went to the backyard.
Jessica immediately knew something was wrong. Panicking, she ran upstairs to Alicia’s room. It was empty. She then frantically searched the rest of the house, only to find Alicia missing.
The Backyard Scene
In the backyard, Jessica and her husband found a chair with bricks stacked up against the wall. They also found small footprints near it.
At this point, the family knew that Alicia had jumped off the fence and left the house. She had taken her expensive comic book, MacBook, and her cellphone with her, but not the chargers.
To Jessica, it seemed strange for Alicia to leave the house in the middle of the night. So, while Jessica hoped her daughter would return soon, she still called the police to file a missing person complaint.
The police arrived at their house and came to the same conclusion as the family. Alicia had taken off. But why and where did she go remained a mystery.
The police tried to contact Alicia’s friends and relatives for clues. They also reached out to a detective agency to gather more information.
But Jessica was worried. She thought about the struggles Alicia might face, and that scared her. She knew Alicia needed her because only she could handle her daughter when things went south.
The Goodbye Note
The next day, Jessica went to Alicia’s room to find some clues. And that’s when she saw a handwritten note by Alicia that read,
I ran away. I’ll be back, I swear. I’m sorry. — Alicia
Now Jessica knew her daughter had written the note, for it was her handwriting. But the letter seemed to be written in a hurry, something that Alicia rarely did. Let me remind you that Alicia preferred order in her life, and she liked planning her day. So, when Jessica found a scribbled note, she was worried that maybe someone lured her daughter away.
Searching for Clues
Jessica wanted Alicia’s face in the media so that someone could reach out with her whereabouts.
She took this note to the police and requested them to put on a silver alert. It’s used to spread the message across the country. They also displayed Alicia’s face on billboards and asked the public to offer any information.
The last time Alicia went online was at 3.26 am on the day she went missing. Since none heard any barks or screams, the police concluded Alicia left the house on her own, between 3.30 am and 7 am.
Jessica walked around the neighborhood every day, talking to neighbors. She also got CCTV clips from them to find potential clues.
In one of the footage clips, Jessica saw a white truck stop by her house around the same time they think Alicia left the house. It left the neighborhood almost immediately.
Jessica realized that only Alicia’s footprints were found in the backyard. But she couldn’t have gone far alone. But someone could’ve picked her up, and she assumed the person drove this truck.
However, the CCTV footage didn’t capture the truck’s plate, and the police couldn’t get more information on the vehicle.
Alicia left the house five days before her 15th birthday.
Now, for the Hispanic community, the 15th birthday is special. But knowing Alicia’s social anxiety, her family opted for a quiet celebration. They ordered her favorite cake and invited her close friends. As she also wanted to eat steak, they made reservations at a fancy restaurant.
Jessica invited some people over to the local park, hoping that Alicia would come back for her birthday. She also hoped to spread the word in the community.
However, the day came, but Alicia didn’t.
It was heartbreaking for the family. But that’s when a kid offered a piece of information.
One of Alicia’s sibling’s friends allegedly saw Alicia four days after she went missing.
The kid said that she saw her with an older man who had tattoos and dark skin. She saw them at the LA Pradera Park in Glendale at around 4 pm. The park’s about 1.5 miles from Alicia’s house.
So, Jessica immediately wanted to investigate this account. She rushed to that neighborhood and started talking to the people who live there. At the park, she met a man who spent a lot of time there, and he confirmed the girl’s story of seeing Alicia with a tattooed man.
Unfortunately, there was no surveillance in that park, and they had no information about the man or his whereabouts.
It was a dead end.
Widened Search Efforts
Jessica, heartbroken and worried that her daughter was missing, roamed around the streets of her neighborhood, hoping to find her.
That’s when she saw the actual state of her neighborhood and what teen life is in the 21st century. She found many teenagers on the streets selling drugs and offering sex. Jessica, scared that someone might coerce her daughter to be a part of these groups, renewed her search again.
Since Alicia had autism, she is more trusting. She doesn’t let many people into her life. But she blindly trusted those in her circle. So, it worried Jessica that someone could’ve manipulated her and made her run away. She was also concerned that her daughter was forced to stay away from home because there was no way Alicia could’ve managed on her own for so long.
At this point, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the FBI were roped in, and the organizations were also doing their best to find Alicia. They listed Alicia’s details on their websites, billboards, and other public places in the neighborhood.
Yet, months passed by with no concrete clue.
In March 2020, the Anti Predators Project was involved in the case. They deal with human trafficking cases and are looking into the possibility of Alicia being sold in the black market. They’re also tracking her online friends to get more information.
Jessica is also doing her best to raise awareness. She has several social media accounts that talk and educate parents about the dangers kids face online. She hopes to find her daughter through her reach on social media.
The Underlying Problem
One of the classic traits of autistic people is their interests. When they like something, they invest a lot of time and energy in developing their skills. For Alicia, that was online gaming.
Alicia spent a lot of time playing games or having conversations in the gaming community. While it was good for her because she could develop her social skills, someone could also take advantage of her and manipulate her into doing harmful things.
Sadly, Jessica didn’t know about the conversations that took place online. While she knew her daughter spent significant time online, she didn’t know whom Alicia spoke to or what topics she talked about.
And that’s the biggest problem faced by both teenagers and parents these days. The generation gap creates a drift. Parents didn’t learn to use the internet the same way kids these days use. They don’t know the dark complexities of the Web that technological advancement has brought in.
Now, the following few paragraphs may sound insensitive to Alicia’s well-wishers. I’m sure they would have thought hard about what they could’ve done to stop the mishap. Reminding them of their shortcomings can seem harsh.
But please understand that I’m not patronizing anyone here. Talking about such topics is the best way we can educate people about the magnitude of the problem. It’s how we can prevent another family from going through the same ordeal.
Restricting internet usage for kids has been a furious debate for decades now.
Some experts believe that using trackers to monitor children’s internet usage is beneficial, while others argue it doesn’t instill confidence. Plus, the more tracking you do, the more data these companies collect. Privacy and security can become serious issues here.
Studying Alicia’s online life, she seemed to have had a strange one. Her friends remember her as someone who spoke about her boyfriends, her gaming life, and how she planned to do some dubious things. Jessica knew nothing about this side of Alicia.
But when Jessica thinks about the events before Alicia’s disappearance, she feels her daughter kept giving her subtle hints. For example, Alicia only liked to eat at IHOP or McDonald’s. But for her birthday, she specifically asked for steak at a fancy restaurant. Alicia also didn’t like using body spray, makeup, or revealing clothes. Yet, she suddenly wanted to try them out.
So, while Jessica assumed that these were teenage lifestyle changes, she now believes that someone could’ve influenced her into changing her habits. She considers the possibility that Alicia might’ve changed herself to impress some stranger online. And it scares her that someone is using her kid, and she missed her chance of stopping it.
Now I’m not saying that Jessica didn’t educate Alicia on Internet safety. She sat down with Alicia and explained it. But what she didn’t realize is the extent to which expert criminals go to lure innocent children. As you educate yourself on systems and applications to protect your kids, they also learn about the technology they can use to manipulate them.
That’s why experts find it crucial to include mindful communication in your relationships. They say that you should be friendly with your kids so that they open up to you. But not so much that they take you for granted.
Hiring experts and therapists will only take you to a point. Beyond that, it’s up to you to make that extra effort to connect with your children. For starters, try opening up to your kids. Tell them about your high school or what you did when someone stalked you. Talk to them about the people who got affected by your seemingly harmless decisions.
When you share your life, your kids will find it easier to share their life with you. Only when you show genuine interest in their lives will they feel comfortable enough to open up to you.
Let’s strive to build an informed society where both kids and parents feel safe.
PS. If you have information about Alicia Navarro, please call the Glendale Police Department at 623–930–3000, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1–800-THE-LOST or the Anti-Predator Project at 305–796–4859.