Brooke and Kyle Morris have been reading headlines about their daughter for more than a year now. Her disappearance from a Dallas Mavericks game and the disturbing details of how she was later found drew attention from around the country.
On April 8, 2022, Kyle Morris and his then 15-year-old daughter were in their seats watching the Mavs take on the Portland Trail Blazers. Sometime around halftime, she got up to use the restroom.
She never returned to her seat.
Ten days later, on April 18, she was recovered in Oklahoma City from what police called a sex trafficking ring.
The Morrises were reunited with their daughter, and they've admitted her into multiple treatment programs out of state to help with her trauma recovery.
The family said the journey with their daughter has been difficult, but what haunts them most is the time they said was lost the night their daughter went missing. It's time they believe could have saved their daughter from the trauma she is currently healing from.
"Maybe they weren't showing it in my presence, but I certainly did not get the sense that there was a lot of urgency or that they were overly concerned," Kyle Morris said.
The Dallas Police Department (DPD) confirmed that Morris reported the teen missing to an off-duty DPD officer working the game and that the arena was searched.
“I’m pretty confident that for, at least until the game was over or they had access to the video, they believed she was still somewhere in the stadium because they were checking bathrooms and stairwells," Kyle Morris said.
The Morrises said police did not check outside of the arena or ask for a photo to share with other officers and security personnel.
"There's footage of her sitting on the steps with police officers coming in and out of view," Brooke Morris said. "If there had been a photo. If there had been a description. Anything."
When officers were not able to find the teen during the initial search of the arena, Kyle Morris was told he had to go home to North Richland Hills to report his daughter missing because that is where the family lived.
North Richland Hills is about 30 miles from downtown Dallas.
According to the North Richland Hills Police Department, Morris made a report to them at 1:24 a.m. the next morning, and the department entered her in the national missing person database at 3:27 a.m.
DPD said a bulletin with a photo and information of the girl was created and sent out to all DPD officers two days after her disappearance, on April 11.
She was found one week later.
Not by Dallas police.
Not by North Richland Hills police, which became the lead agency on the case, even though teen went missing 30 miles away.
She was recovered by Oklahoma City police, but only after her parents worked with an anti-trafficking organization in Houston to match photos of her with online sex ads that were created and posted online.
“Had any circumstance been different, how long would it have taken Dallas or North Richland Hills or the FBI or Homeland to find her?" Brooke Morris asked. "How long before they found those ads? Do they even find these ads?”
It's the idea of what could have been that lingers for the couple.
“When your child is missing, every day is like a year," Brooke Morris said.
The Morrises are not strangers to the feeling. She'd run away from home multiple times. She would usually come home after a few hours or sometimes even a couple of days after having gone off with someone she knew.
"We started to get kind of embarrassed if I'm being honest," Kyle Morris said. "It made us feel like other people were judging us because 'Hey, you can’t keep your kid safe. What’s going on in the home?'”
They were also used to the response from law enforcement when they called to report that she had run away.
"It was pretty much the narrative of, 'She’ll turn up. Try not to worry about it too bad,'" Morris said.
But April 8, 2022, was different.
They said she had been grounded from her phone, so she didn't have a way of communicating with anyone. She also wasn't home when she left and wasn't familiar with downtown Dallas.
“When several days had passed, and we still hadn’t heard from her it was like she just vanished into thin air," Brooke Morris said. "There were no tips. No one had seen her."
Surveillance footage from the game showed her walking around with adult men who would later become people of interest in the case.
“Why didn’t she fight? Why didn’t she scream?" Brooke Morris asked. "Truthfully, I do not know why. And truthfully, even now, yes…visually, it looks she’s just walking out with him but to this day she can’t even remember fully exactly what was said to her.”
Classified as a runaway
But regardless of what followed, the fact that the teen seemingly left the area voluntarily without any evidence that she was abducted or lured classified her as a runaway. That classification is what dictated how her case was handled.
Morris said he was met with a similar response to his daughter running away from American Airlines Center as he did when she left their home, despite the fact that she did not know the area and the number of people who were at the event.
“They viewed it the exact same way," Kyle Morris said. "It really made no difference the circumstances outside of, 'Well, did someone grab her and is there evidence that she was essentially abducted against her will?' And if there’s not that then they’re all lumped in together.”
Days after the teen was recovered, WFAA asked DPD why Kyle Morris was told to travel back to North Richland Hills to report his daughter missing.
A spokesperson cited Section 51 of Texas Family Code, writing that this portion of state law "dictates that missing juveniles are investigated as runaways unless there are circumstances which appear as involuntary such as kidnapping or abduction." The spokesperson went on to write that "...those cases, per code, are to be filed where the juvenile resides."
Section 51 of Texas Family Code details proceedings and punishment for what are called "status offenses" for juveniles in the state. Status offenses are violations of state law that are only illegal because the person committing the offense is a minor. For example, underage drinking and breaking curfew are status offenses.
The law states that a child between the ages of 10 and 16 who leaves home voluntarily without their parents' permission commits the status offense of running away from home.
The law does not address how law enforcement is to respond if a parent or guardian reports that their child has run away.
Also, it does not require a parent to report their runaway child to their home police department.
Chapter 63 of Texas Criminal Code lays out how law enforcement is to respond to reports of a missing child or a missing person. The law defines a missing child as a person who is under 18 who leaves the care of their parents or guardians, both voluntarily and involuntarily.
This part of the law does not state that reports of a missing child have to be filed in the jurisdiction where the child lives. The term "local law enforcement agency" is used in both codes, but it is not clear which jurisdiction the agency has to be local to.
DPD Assistant Chief Catrina Shead, who oversees the department's investigative bureau, agreed to an interview about the way the department investigates cases involving missing children and runaways. She did not take questions about any specific case but about the process in general.
Shead was asked about how DPD interprets Texas law in terms of requiring someone reporting a runaway to file a report where the victim lives, instead of where the teen went missing.
“I would say that investigatively, it may have caused us some concern, and it is something that we would like to address," Shead said.
DPD's website states that runaway kids and teens can only be reported to the department if the runaway lives in the city of Dallas.
"It’s difficult to articulate that, you can imagine being a parent…articulating that to them. Not here, but there…go there and report. You know," Shead said.
DPD is not the only North Texas police department that requires runaways to have a legal address in their jurisdiction to receive a report. Fort Worth police said the department has the same policy, though the department said it will initiate the report if the child went missing in Fort Worth.
The Plano Police Department said that runaways need to be reported to the department with jurisdiction where they ran away from.
The lack of uniformity in handling these cases caught the attention of state Sen. Kelly Hancock. The Republican, who represents North Richland Hills, said hearing the Morris's story led him to introduce SB 2429 during the regular legislative session.
"We’re trying to clarify a few things," Hancock said. "You know, there’s a difference between a missing child and a missing adult, clarifying those that are at high risk and making sure when these events occur that there is immediate reaction by the police department.”
The bill states that a local law enforcement agency, regardless of the jurisdiction where the child went missing, must start an investigation and enter the child into the National Crime Information Center within 48 hours.
“There was a lag time and delay that this legislation, working with police and working with the Department of Public Safety here in Texas, hopefully that will address this gap that occurred," Hancock said.
The legislation also provides a clearer definition of what makes a missing child or person at high-risk of falling victim to crimes like sex trafficking and provides training opportunities for responding to those cases. One of the factors the bill lists is a child going missing from a dangerous location.
While Shead maintained that DPD investigates runaway cases thoroughly, she said she supports any moves to add more clarity to the current law on investigating these cases.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 2429 into law in June. It goes into effect on Sept. 1.
WFAA asked DPD if it plans to review its policy for investigating runaway juveniles, particularly its practice of requiring runaways to have a legal address in the City of Dallas to receive the report.
A spokesperson for the department said, "We are reviewing all legislation. We will work to implement any required changes when this law goes into effect on September 1."
“My hope is that no one else has to go through anything remotely similar to our situation, any other family or any other parents that are out in public with their child goes missing, that they don’t have to go through the same experience we had of being told to go home and wait until you’re home to file a police report," Kyle Morris said.