LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A 13-year-old Southern California girl who ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage in Pakistan has been taken into protective custody by child welfare authorities, police said on Thursday.
Jessie Marie Bender, who vanished from her home in the early morning hours of February 22, was found on Wednesday at a motel in a nearby community, where she had been hiding with the help of an uncle, San Bernardino County Sheriff's spokeswoman Roxanne Walker said.
The middle school student, who was missing for eight days, was physically unharmed.
"She ran away because she didn't want to go to Pakistan. She was afraid," Walker told Reuters.
The girl was taken into protective custody, along with her three siblings, after detectives corroborated her story, Walker said.
A spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office said prosecutors would weigh possible criminal charges against members of her family once police presented them with the case.
Jessie was initially reported missing from her home in the desert community of Hesperia, about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles, by family members who said she may have run away to avoid going on a two-month trip to Pakistan.
Several days later, Jessie's mother, Melissa, told police she believed her daughter had been abducted by someone she met on Facebook -- a claim that triggered an exhaustive hunt for the teen involving local police, the FBI and U.S. Marshals, Walker said.
After an investigation turned up no evidence that Jessie had been kidnapped, Walker said, detectives discovered that an uncle had taken her to a motel in nearby Apple Valley out of fear that she would be taken to Pakistan for an arranged marriage.
Walker said Jessie and her mother were American but that the girl's stepfather was a Pakistani native. It was not immediately clear if the girl's mother and stepfather are married.
"She was afraid to go to Pakistan and she didn't want to go back home because she was scared," Walker said. "We're just glad she's OK."
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