BRANDON — Law enforcement agencies said Friday evening they had located four girls ages 4 to 13 who were discovered missing from a private foster facility early that morning.
Shortly after 7 p.m., the girls were discovered trying to climb back over a fence near the rear of A Kid’s Place, 1715 Lithia-Pinecrest Road, where they had been discovered missing around 12:20 a.m. Friday during a head count.
Deputies say it appears that after they slipped out of the facility, they went to a nearby park, then broke into an abandoned residence in the area by breaking a window. They stayed at the abandoned residence all day and were attempting to return when they were discovered.
The girls were to be interviewed and examined medically before being returned to the facility.
An alert for the girls — three of whom are sisters — was issued to every law enforcement agency in the state, and authorities planned to use digital billboards with the girls’ photos in hopes that the public might help locate them, said Col. Donna Lucszynski of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation also were offering a $5,000 reward for information that might help find them.
“We’re concerned because it’s been quite a few hours and no one has seen them,” Lucszynski said during a news conference Friday evening before the girls were discovered.
The missing girls were Allison Nelson, 4, Anabella Gonzalez, 10, Heavenlynn Gonzalez, 11, and Ashlyn Smith, 13.
Allison, Anabella and Heavenlynn Gonzalez are sisters.
Lucszynski said the girls stuffed pillows under the blankets of their beds to make it look like they were asleep and then climbed out of a window. They either climbed a 6-foot chain link fence that surrounds A Kid’s Place or squeezed through a gate, she said.
Before their discovery Friday night, they were last seen about 10:20 p.m. Thursday.
Lucszynski said deputies knocked on every door within a half-mile radius of A Kid’s Place and visited every registered sexual offender within a 2-mile radius. Helicopters and tracking dogs also had been used in the search.
Authorities also were checking Friday with relatives of the youths both in and out of state.
“Their families have been very cooperative,” Lucszynski said. “They are all concerned and nobody knows where they’re at. They gave us permission to look through their houses.”
Lucszynski said each child and staff member at A Kid’s Place had been interviewed, and deputies also went through computer and phone records at the facility because the children had access to those amenities.
Lucszynski said at least two girls had discussed running away with other children.
She said Allison, Anabella and Heavenlynn have lived in A Kid’s Place since March, and Ashlyn since February. About 50 deputies worked through the night looking for them.
A Kid’s Place opened in 2009. It was described as a $5.2 million, 60-bed facility that serves as a temporary shelter for children from birth to age 17. The facility is where law enforcement brings children in the first traumatic hours after they are removed from their homes.
According to sheriff’s records, deputies responded to A Kid’s Place 18 times since the beginning of the year on a variety of calls. Only two calls have been for missing children or runaways, including Friday’s.
Because of their ages, Lucszynski would not talk about the circumstances that led to the children being placed there.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.