'Runaway' incidents not unusual for Aiken's Helping Hands

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News 12 First at Five / Monday, Dec. 30, 2013

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- It's an Aiken non-profit for abused, abandoned, and neglected children.

"They're either there by court order either from DSS or DJJ," says Lt. Jake Mahoney with the Aiken Department of Public Safety.

However, an incident Saturday night has put Helping Hands in the headlines. Around 9 PM that evening, eleven young people, ranging from 13 to 19 years old, escaped from the facility. Aiken Public Safety was called, an officer entered the teens into a national database as missing persons, and then, five hours later, they were all found.

"Well, they wound up about half a mile away gathered in Eustis Park," says Mahoney.

Now, many want to know why they ran.

"I can't tell you why they ran away," says Lt. Mahoney. "We just don't know. They're juveniles. They're kids ages 13 to 19, so as to a specific reason for running, we don't know."

But Lt. Mahoney does know this isn't the first time a young person has escaped from the facility. From just 2013 alone, News 12 found 16 reports concerning children or young adults running away from the Aiken facility.

On November 9, a report says three escaped and were later found near Duke's BBQ outside New Ellenton. Another report says two males escaped on Halloween night to trick-or-treat. According to the incident report, one was under house arrest at Helping Hands. In August, a report says a female juvenile escaped for so long that once she was found months later near State Park Road, she'd been dismissed by Helping Hands.

"Everybody runs away for their own reasons, and some people do it because they don't have anything else better to do," says Joanna Nieves who attended Helping Hands from May 2005 to December 2006.

Nieves says better security may be needed, so people like her can get the help they need.

"I got in school, got a job, and finished my GED by the end of '05, so it helped me become a better person," she says.

Helping Hands Executive Director Carmen Landy isn't ready to do on-camera interviews just yet, but did give News 12 a couple comments on the phone. Her biggest message is that Helping Hands isn't a prison. She says it's a big home, so sometimes the juveniles or young adults do runaway.

In the stack of incident reports News 12 obtained, most of the runaways were found by Public Safety pretty quickly and returned to Helping Hands.

Lt. Mahoney says, ultimately, Helping Hands is a big asset to the Aiken community.

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