NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas — April 8, 2022, is a day Brooke and Kyle Morris will never forget.
They admit their daughter had run away from home before. She'd actually run multiple times.
This time was different.
"If it's your child, you care about that one time," Brooke Morris said.
Their daughter, who was 15 at the time, had gone to a Dallas Mavericks game with Kyle Morris. Morris said she left her seat during the game to go to the restroom and never came back.
Hours later, surveillance footage revealed images of the teen walking and talking with a man at the arena before leaving.
A week and a half later, officers with the Oklahoma City Police Department recovered the girl after receiving reports that photos of her had been posted in online sex advertisements. They arrested and charged multiple people for their role in what law enforcement called a sex trafficking ring.
Saturday marked one year since the start of what the Morrises call a "nightmare."
A year later, their daughter is in recovery. Two people are serving prison time, and a third person is set for this trial this month, for what law enforcement believe their role was in this case once the teen was taken to Oklahoma. Dallas Police arrested and charged a man who they believe assaulted her in Dallas before she was taken out of Texas.
Brooke and Kyle Morris say they are balancing their daughter's healing with the fight for justice.
“For me, it’s going back to the accountability piece," Brooke Morris said.
Last week, the couple testified before the Texas Senate's criminal justice committee in favor of a bill that would change the protocol for responding to runaway cases, which is how the Morrises' daughter was classified when they reported she was missing.
"When they’re labeled as a runaway, law enforcement’s either ability or willingness to put in the resources is severely limited," Kyle Morris said. “Several times, from different law enforcement agencies in the Dallas Fort Worth area, it was 'She’s probably just having fun. She didn’t want to be at home with her parents.'"
Morris said, when he reported that his daughter was missing to Dallas Police, he was told he needed to file a report with the North Richland Hills Police Department because that is where they live.
When WFAA requested information from DPD, a spokesperson confirmed that the department, in compliance with Texas Family Code(51.03 b. 3), classifies missing minors as runaways "unless there are circumstances which appear as involuntary such as a kidnapping or abduction." The code states runaway cases have to be filed in the city where the child lives, and that agency leads the investigation- even if the child goes missing in a different city.
“This didn’t have to happen, and there were several stopping points in the way that could have stopped this before it got out of control…before she got to Oklahoma," Kyle Morris said.
Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican from North Richland Hills, sponsored SB 2429. In a statement provided to WFAA, he said:
"We may never know what amount of suffering could have been prevented if the investigation into [the teen's] disappearance had started immediately. What we do know is that she endured something no one ever should, and the Morris family shouldn't have had to wade through red tape and jurisdiction confusion while they were desperately searching for their daughter. The legislation we built together, SB 2429, requires immediate investigation of missing child cases, regardless of jurisdiction, establishes clear criteria for children who may be at high risk of abuse or trafficking, and requires law enforcement to escalate their response in these instances, including immediately notifying every law enforcement agency in the area. The bill also addresses law enforcement training by requiring every officer to complete a basic education program on missing children and the associated reporting requirements."
North Richland Hills Police confirmed the case was not reported to them until about 1:30 in the morning on April 9, 2022. The department entered her into the national missing persons database two hours later. The Morrises say the hours between realizing their daughter was missing and traveling back home to report to their local agency was spent working with authorities to search the arena, but they would have liked to have been able to file a report in Dallas.
“Had those steps been done, she likely would have been located well before a majority of these things happened to her," Brooke Morris said.
The couple described the evening in their testimony before the senate committee, laying out the timeline and steps they had to take to find their daughter.
"They were listening. They were intent. They were focused," Brooke Morris said.
The committee unanimously passed the bill to move out of committee, and the next step would be for the bill to be scheduled to be heard and voted on by the full Senate.
An identical bill, sponsored by Representative Stephanie Klick, has been filed and read in the Texas House. In late March, it was referred to the House's Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee.
Their daughter wasn't able to testify in favor of the legislation, as she is out of state in a treatment program. Her parents said, if the governor signs the bill into law, she will be there to see it happen.
"In a weird way, I’m happy for her to be a catalyst for this change," Brooke Morris said.