BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — A 13-year-old planned to spend her spring break visiting her uncle in Chicago, but instead found herself sitting at the Battle Creek police station after getting kicked off an Amtrak train.
On the morning of March 26, Renee Van Tress boarded a 7:06 a.m. train in Lapeer. Her mom bought a ticket for her online and dropped her off at the station. Her uncle planned to pick her up at the station in Chicago.
Renee and her dad Robert Van Tress sat down with Target 8 after she was forced off halfway to the Windy City.
“I’m so confused. Like, it pretty much was a two-and-a-half-hour-ride to Battle Creek and then on top of it, it was a five-hour train ride anyway to Chicago. So I really would’ve only had another two and a half hours to go,” Renee told Target 8.
Amtrak has specific policies for unaccompanied minors ages 13 to 15. Those include boarding at a staffed station, talking to staff prior to boarding and obtaining a wristband for the young teen for the duration of the ride.
Renee’s parents did some research and believed she could ride alone based on what they read online, so they figured everything was set for her trip. She boarded, had her ticket scanned and departed for the Windy City with no problems.
The conductor only got involved after a passenger sitting near Renee asked her how old she was.
“The conductor came over and asked my age and I said 13 and he said I was too young to be on the train alone,” she explained. “I explained that my uncle was going to pick me up and they still said that I had to get off.”
At that time, the train had made it to the Flint area. Texts she sent to her dad show they told her she would have to get off in Battle Creek by 8 a.m., less than an hour into the ride.
“They could’ve called Durand police and say, ‘We have so-and-so here, can you please come over and pick her up?’ Then your next stop would be (East Lansing). Maybe that could’ve happened there and it would’ve given her mother a shorter distance to drive to pick her up,” Robert Van Tress told Target 8.
He couldn’t leave work to go to Battle Creek, so instead Renee’s mom drove from Lapeer to pick up Renee. The Battle Creek officer who Amtrak called to the station, Cpl. Joe Wilder, took Renee to the police department. She got a tour of the station before her mom got there around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
CORPORAL QUESTIONS POLICY
This wasn’t the first time Wilder assisted with a passenger removed from an Amtrak train.
He believes the company didn’t handle this specific incident properly.
“They didn’t even call the parents,” Wilder told Target 8. “To me, that just doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense.”
He went to the station after dispatch put out a call to assist Amtrak with a passenger. He got there shortly before the train arrived at 9:25 a.m. and asked the window staff what was going on.
“They basically just laughed at me because I said, ‘What are you doing with this child?’ And they just laughed and thought it was a big joke,” he recalled. “My biggest issue is they drop this child off, they’re responsible. What if something happened to that child? What if I wasn’t here? It seems like this would be a huge lawsuit or big mess, don’t you think?”
Wilder said he did his best to make sure Renee felt comfortable riding in his squad car back to the police station.
He doesn’t understand why Amtrak couldn’t call her parents in the hour and a half it took to get to Battle Creek after realizing she was 13.
“What is a police agency supposed to do? We don’t have jurisdiction on the train. They have their own police department that’s supposed to be dealing with this, so I’m not really sure why they use us for a dumping ground, but that’s ultimately what they did,” Wilder said.
AMTRAK DEFENDS POLICIES
In an email exchange with Target 8, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said that in cases like Renee’s, it’s the company’s policy to drop off unaccompanied minors at the nearest station manned by Amtrak staff members. Though the train stopped in Durand and East Lansing, Magliari said Amtrak workers don’t staff those stations and that Battle Creek is the closest staffed station.
“When someone of that age is traveling alone and outside those procedures, there is no way for our train conductors to know if they are traveling with the permission of their parent or guardian, if they are a runaway or if they are being trafficked,” Magliari stated in an email. “The safest decision was to transfer the child to a police agency, which is what occurred in this case.”
Magliari also pointed out that Amtrak’s website states that when purchasing a ticket for an unaccompanied minor, parents must book over the phone and cannot book online. He also said the policy requires unaccompanied minors to board at a station with a staffed ticket window to Amtrak workers can confirm everything is in order. He said the Lapeer station does not have Amtrak staffing.
Cpl. Wilder said Amtrak’s system is flawed.
“I think that’s a strike and a miss on this,” he said. “…The mother paid for the ticket, so at that point, shouldn’t someone intervene or make a comment? Or check?”