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"She was in a hurry to be 18, 19, 20," Linda said, "and she was only 15."
When Elrinda first left home, friends like the Jacksons called daily to find out if there was any word. After awhile, Nyaisha's mother, Lisa, says she felt uncomfortable. She didn't know whether her telephone calls brought comfort to the family or caused pain. In early October, Lisa said she'd stopped calling Linda.
As the three-month anniversary of Elrinda's disappearance came and went, the Jacksons; Elrinda's scout leader, Audrey Campbell; and pastor Davis, all said they shared Prince and Linda's alarm.
Elrinda is not someone you would say has "street smarts," said Lisa's husband, Freddie. He didn't see how the 15-year-old could survive on her own, despite her nine years in the Girl Scouts. "Looks can be deceiving, obviously," he speculated. "Either she is pretty street-smart and nobody knew it or somebody is assisting her. But turning her back on her church, on the family support she obviously had? You would think she would be missing her room, missing her favorite doll, missing her brother and sister. Seems like she would want to come home by now. It just doesn't make sense when you think about it."
Freddie worried the teen had been forced into a child prostitution ring.
Elrinda's silence didn't make sense to Scout leader Campbell either. She said Elrinda appeared extremely devoted to her family. When the troop traveled to Orlando in February for a sports clinic, Elrinda called home as soon as she hit town to let her parents know she had arrived safely. Later that evening, after dinner, Elrinda again called home to complain she was hungry and had no snacks. If the youngster hasn't telephoned her parents, Campbell said, someone must be preventing her from doing so.
Davis worried Elrinda might be in the thrall of an older man. "Somebody got to her and manipulated her and turned her against the values of her church and her family," he said. "I hate to say it, but it could be sexual, because that is what the devil uses to get people to get these young girls. They are usually trying to get them out on the street because they know there are evil people out there who want to use these young girls in an evil way."
By late October, the buses downtown no longer carried Elrinda's picture. A flier on the door of a convenience store near the bus terminal had been taken down. At the county bus terminal, one fellow runaway said he heard the case had been solved. "I heard they found her living with a guy in Miami," the boy said. As sightings continued to trickle in, the Joneses turned to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Broward County Sheriff's Office for help. A Broward deputy checked out a house where a man said he had dropped Elrinda and an 18-year-old girl the man knew. The house was vacant.
On October 15, Elrinda turned 16. The Joneses hoped she would call. They waited for the phone to ring. It never did.
The day Linda searched Elrinda's room for clues, she also read her daughter's diary, hoping to understand why Elrinda left home. What Linda found disturbed her deeply. In eighth grade, Elrinda had written that she wanted to kill herself. In ninth grade, she complained that she felt misunderstood by her family. She believed that Prince and Linda didn't love her as much as they said. She felt like the black sheep of the Jones household.
Last year, Linda recalled, Elrinda came home from school and said some other teens had said she was adopted. Her skin was so much darker than her brother's and sister's, Elrinda was convinced it was true. Linda said she even pulled out her daughter's birth certificate to prove she was the girl's biological mother.
Looking back, Linda said in late October, she remembered that Elrinda agonized over her looks. Linda tried to help her make the transition from kid to teen by buying her beauty magazines, braiding her hair, and making an appointment so Elrinda could wear contact lenses. She didn't realize until she read the diary how profound Elrinda's feelings of inadequacy were. "I feel my daughter was depressed," Linda said. "When she comes back, I want to get help for her. I think she was going through some things that she didn't feel she could talk about and that she didn't know how to handle."
Adults often forget how traumatic adolescence can be, said Jill Selbach, director of clinical services for the Catholic-run Covenant House in Fort Lauderdale, a shelter for runaway teens. "I remember thinking I was going to die if I didn't get a dance," she added.
Selbach cautioned that blaming Linda and Prince's strict child-rearing techniques for Elrinda's flight may be misguided. Although many teens run from abuse or severe family conflict, some leave home simply because they don't know how to cope with adolescence. "Parents aren't always the problem," she said. "The first time you have an adolescent in the house can be a disturbing and frustrating experience. Parents and teens need support and tools to deal with all the changes."