The distraught family of a schoolgirl feared to have run off with an older man after allegedly being groomed online have accused police of bungling the search for her.
Aaliyah Chen, 15, snuck out of a window of her family home in Sidcup, Suid-Londen, on Sunday evening and has been missing since. She had given her mother a goodnight kiss on the cheek and went to her bedroom just before.
She is believed to be with an older man, bejaardes 24, who allegedly first groomed her last year via Snapchat and was issued with a child abduction warning notice in July over previous contact with Aaliyah.
The girl’s family claim police missed the chance to intercept the pair just hours after Aaliyah ran away. They also say police initially misclassified the case as medium risk. The Met now says it is being treated as high risk.
It is rare for relatives to go public this early in an investigation with their concerns about how police are handling a missing person’s case. The family contacted the Guardian after reading coverage of the Richard Okorogheye case, waar alleged errors by the Met are under investigation by the police watchdog.
Her mother, Obaida Chen, made an appeal through the Guardian. “Aaliyah, please come home if you see this," sy het gese. “We love you and miss you, you are not in any trouble at all. I just wish the police had acted earlier.”
Sy het bygevoeg: “Aaliyah, at the least ring home. I love her, I want her home, whatever it is we’ll work through it.”
Aaliyah’s aunt Laura Rushe said: “The first 36 hours felt like they were wasted. Information we provided was not given to the search team.”
The family discovered in February that their daughter had already been in contact with the older man for four months, with their contact beginning on Snapchat. Her mother then called the Met and the man was arrested but not charged.
Aaliyah’s mobile phone, which had been seized by the police during the investigation, was returned to her in May. She then began once again contacting the older man. In Julie, the man was issued with a child abduction warning notice deterring him from going near Aaliyah.
This Saturday, the day before the 15-year-old ran away, her mother discovered a diary in her bedroom, the family said. It showed she had met the older man during the school holidays, and made plans for running away with him. She wrote she would starve herself so she would get used to being hungry when she flees home.
The diary also contained an address in Brixton linked to the man. The police were called on Saturday and the diary was taken away.
That day, a suicide note was discovered written on Aaliyah’s phone and she was taken to hospital, before being discharged on the Sunday. That evening she went missing as her mother slept.
Rushe said: “She said good night, mummy, gave her a kiss and went to her room.”
Aaliyah was last seen at home at 9.30pm and by 12.55am is believed to have been on a 51 bus traveling across south London. Her family later discovered her missing and called the police.
The family allege officers said police would visit addresses linked to the older man at approximately 7.30am on the Monday. At 3pm the same day, when they checked with police, the family claim they were told this had not happened.
Aaliyah is still believed to have been at the address in Brixton linked to the man at 8am on the Monday morning. “If they had gone when they were supposed to they may have got them,” Rushe said.
The family said they had to lobby a senior officer in person that evening to have the case upgraded from medium risk to high risk.
Rushe said different officers did not know what evidence and information others had. “Their coordination is appalling, one team did not know the other team had the diaries,” het sy bygevoeg. “We have told the Met we will put an official complaint in.”
Her mother said Aaliyah was doing very well at school, and was into languages such as Korean, Japanese and Spanish – as well as beauty. She was interested in becoming a psychologist.
Rushe said: “You can tell she has been groomed, her interests have changed.”
The family examined her YouTube search history and found videos of how to survive in the wilderness.
When Aaliyah went missing she was wearing baggy black trousers, a khaki green top and black coat, with beige and brown trimming. She has a small tattoo on her left hand, and a piercing in the middle of the nose.
In a statement the Met said: “Officers believe that Aaliyah may be in the company of an older man and a high-risk missing person investigation is under way to find her.
“The pair may have travelled away from Sidcup although it is thought that they are likely to still be in London.
“Anyone who sees Aaliyah should call 999 immediately, providing the reference CAD 4086/08Sep.”
The Met added: “We are aware of concerns raised by Aaliyah’s family regarding the initial response and ongoing investigation into her disappearance.
“We are conducting a wide range of enquiries to trace Aaliyah – who has been determined to be a high-risk missing person – and a man who she may be with. We would urge Aaliyah to make contact with us or her family. Anyone who knows of her whereabouts is also asked to call police.
“The Met is committed to providing the best possible service to families of missing people, ensuring that they are supported by specialist officers and informed of investigative updates as soon as possible. We are continuing to keep Aaliyah’s family updated on our investigation.”