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DOJ guide helps parents, police work together to find a missing child, Part 1

By Scott Buhrmaster
For The Street Survival Newsline

Part 1 of a Special 4-Part Newsline Series

Aside from the parents of missing children, there is no group more intimately involved with and deeply affected by missing children cases than law enforcement officers. You know the extreme dangers a missing child faces in the hands of the wrong person and you will do whatever it takes to find that child and return him or her home safely.

The emotions of the family of a missing child understandably run high - many of you, as parents, can empathize. At times, parents’ frantic attempts to participate in the search for their child may interfere with your job and their fear and frustration mixed with their lack of understanding of how the investigatory process works may cause them to lose sight of the fact that your goal is identical to theirs - to find the child as quickly as possible using all resources available.

In an attempt to offer guidance to the parents of missing children and to help them to understand your job as it relates to a missing child case so they can work in coordination with you, the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has just published a detailed 93-page guide titled, “When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide.”

Since its release last month, requests from the general public for copies of this guide have been overwhelming. This has resulted in a massive back-order situation and a considerable delay in distributing copies. In an attempt to help relay this important information quickly, the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline has offered to transmit portions of this guide to Newsline members around the world. We feel, as does the OJJDP, that you, as law enforcement officers who may be involved with missing child cases, need to receive this information immediately so that you can share it with the family members of missing children and use it to help enhance your agency’s missing child investigations.

In Part 1 of this special Street Survival Newsline report, we share tips included in a chapter titled, “Law Enforcement.” Here the guide discusses what the parents of missing children can expect from law enforcement and conveys the importance of forming a solid partnership between parents and law enforcement officials during missing child investigations. “To give your child the best chance of being found, you and law enforcement must treat one another as partners,” advises Don Ryce, whose young son was found murdered in 1995 after being abducted at gunpoint and sexually molested.

“This chapter,” reads the guide, “provides insight into the relationship you are entering into with law enforcement - what you can expect from the investigation, what types of questions you are likely to be asked, and what situations you and your family are likely to encounter in the process.”

Here are some of the tips shared in the guide:

Make sure law enforcement understands that your child is in danger and that his or her absence is likely to be involuntary

If your child is 10 years old or younger, it will not be hard to show that your child is in danger. However, if your child is older than 10, it is important to let law enforcement know that your child’s absence is not normal behavior and that you would be surprised if your child had disappeared voluntarily.

Check to see if any money, clothing (other than that your child was wearing), or any other personal items are missing

If nothing else is missing, be sure law enforcement is aware of this.

Let law enforcement know how your child is doing in school and if your child has quarreled recently with you or a friend

If you can establish that there is nothing to indicate that your child ran away, it will expedite law enforcement’s classification of your child as abducted or endangered.

Be honest, complete and forthcoming in your statements and answers to law enforcement

Fully disclose all recent activities of and conversations with your child. What may seem insignificant to you may be important to an investigator.

Be prepared for hard, repetitious questions from investigators

As difficult as it may be, try not to respond in a hostile manner to questions that seem personal or offensive. The fact is that investigators must ask difficult and sensitive questions if they are to do their jobs effectively.

Don’t feel guilty about relaying suspicions concerning someone you know

It is not often that a total stranger takes a child. You may not want to believe that it is someone that you know, but keep an open mind and consider all the possibilities. Above all else, trust your feelings, instincts, and gut reactions and share them with law enforcement so they can be checked out.

Do everything possible to get you and your family removed from the suspect list

As painful as it may be, accept that fact that a large number of children are harmed by members of their own families, and therefore you and your family will be considered suspects until you are cleared. To help law enforcement move on to other suspects, volunteer early to take a polygraph test. Insist that both parents be tested at the same time by different interviewers, or one after another. This will help to deflect media speculation that one of you was involved in the disappearance.

Insist that everyone close to your child be interviewed

Encourage everyone - including family members, friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches - to cooperate in the investigatory process. Although polygraph testing is voluntary, refusal to take a polygraph can cause law enforcement to spend time trying to eliminate an individual from the suspect list through other means and, as a result, take valuable time away from finding the real suspect.

Leave the interviewing of your other children to law enforcement

Do not question your children yourself. Especially with younger children, insist that a law enforcement officer who is trained to interview children conduct the questioning. Many law enforcement agencies have a child abuse unit with officers who are specially trained to work with children.

You can also ask to have a child advocate sit in on the interview with your child. Child advocates are specially trained volunteers who provide assistance and support to children involved in the legal process. Child advocates are normally housed in the district attorney’s office, the court, or the law enforcement agency. Ask law enforcement for information about your local child advocate office. If your child is very young, you may ask to sit in on the interview. Don’t be alarmed, however, if law enforcement prefers to interview your child alone.

Be prepared for constant law enforcement presence in your home

For the protection of you and your family, an officer may be assigned to your home on a 24-hour basis. Although this presence may feel intrusive, welcome the officer, and recognize that this person is there to answer calls and take leads, protect you and other members of your family from potential harm, and provide support. If your law enforcement agency is small, however, it may not have the resources to place an officer in your home 24 hours a day. In those circumstances, it is still reasonable for you to ask for added law enforcement protection in your home.

Talk regularly with your primary law enforcement contact

The officer who responded initially to your call for help may not be your permanent family contact. If there is a good chance that your child has run away, for example, your primary law enforcement contact may work in the missing persons unit. If it is suspected that force was used to abduct your child, your case may be handled by a detective from homicide. Find out who your primary law enforcement contact is and get his or her phone and beeper numbers. Make sure that you find out the name of the backup person to call when your primary law enforcement contact is not available.

Pick a day for your contact to call you with information

But realize that there will be days when your investigator has nothing to report. Also, designate one person to serve as the primary law enforcement contact for the family. If your investigator is bombarded with telephone calls from family members and friends, valuable time will be taken away from the investigation.

Make sure investigators know that you expect to hear about significant developments from them, not the media

The flip side of this is that you must honor law enforcement’s request not to disclose some pieces of information to the media. Understand, however, that law enforcement may not be able to tell you everything about the case because full disclosure might jeopardize the investigation.

Satisfy yourself that law enforcement is handling your child’s case properly

All of the agencies involved in the investigation should be cooperating with one another in the pursuit of one goal - finding your missing child and getting the predator off the street. The checklist “Working With Law Enforcement” (which follows) lists the most important steps law enforcement can take to find your missing child. The more you understand the investigatory process, the better able you will be to ask questions about it. However, you should be aware that most law enforcement officers do not have firsthand experience working on a missing child case. If your primary contact cannot answer a question, find out who can. Also, if you feel that your child’s disappearance has been classified inappropriately, ask to speak to the officer’s supervisor or to someone else who may have more experience in these types of cases. Don’t take no for an answer if you feel strongly that something else needs to be done.

Working with law enforcement

The following checklist describes the most important steps that law enforcement can take as the investigation begins. Use this information to deepen your understanding of the investigatory process. Discuss these steps with your assigned law enforcement investigator, keeping in mind that the order of these steps is likely to vary, depending upon individual circumstances.

[Please note: Complete contact information for the agencies and organizations mentioned in the following checklist will be transmitted in the final installment of this special Newsline report].

• A BOLO (Be On the Look Out) bulletin can be broadcast to local law enforcement agencies to alert them to your missing child, and a teletype can be sent locally or regionally.

• Your local law enforcement agency is required by Federal law to immediately enter your child’s name into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) registry or missing persons. There is no waiting period for entry into NCIC for children under age 18. If your law enforcement agency has any questions about compliance with this requirement, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

• NCMEC may be asked to broadcast fax your child’s picture to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and assistance from Project ALERT (America’s Law Enforcement Retiree Team) investigators may be requested.

• The FBI’s Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit (CASKU) and Morgan P. Hardiman Task Force on Missing and Exploited Children may be informed of the case or asked for assistance if there is a chance the abduction was predatory.

• Your local FBI Field Office may be notified in case additional services and support are needed. CASKU services, for example, can be obtained through your field office.

• Your State missing children’s clearinghouse will be notified and additional services may be requested.

• The crime scene - the location outside your home where your child might have been abducted - and your child’s bedroom will be secured. The officers who respond initially to your call will evaluate the contents and appearance of your child’s bedroom and will secure your child’s used bedding, clothing, and shoes and place them in clean bags to be used as scent articles. Your child’s toothbrush, hairbrush, and other items that might contain DNA evidence will be stored in a safe place, and footprints in dust, mud, or snow will be protected to preserve the scent. You may be asked if personal items are missing, and the last persons known to haveseen your child will be interviewed.

• Tracking or trailing dogs or a helicopter equipped with infrared or a heat-sensitive device (to detect heat emitted from the body) may be requested after your residence, yard, and surrounding areas have been searched unsuccessfully.

• Airlines, airports, bus and taxicab companies, subways, ferries, and ports may be advised of the disappearance and given posters of your missing child.

• Investigators may revisit various “hot spots” or checkpoints either at the same time of day or the same day of the week following the disappearance to see if they can find anyone who has seen something or who recalls something unusual at the time your child disappeared.

• Your neighborhood watch should be contacted to see if anything suspicious was noticed.

• The daily log of parking and traffic tickets and traffic stops will be checked to see if anything relates to your child’s disappearance.

• The convicted sex offender registry will be checked to find out if a potential suspect was in the area.

• Local newspapers should be collected and reviewed to provide possible clues or leads for the search. Local regional events and activities - such as carnivals, county fairs, festivals sports events, and music concerts - and want ads for hired help may produce names or clues regarding either the predator or a witness to the disappearance.

• A procedure for handling extortion attempts should be established.

• Neighboring jurisdictions should be contacted to find out if incidents of a similar nature have occurred there also.

NEXT: Teaching parents how they can collect and preserve the evidence you need for your missing child investigation.

Download a full copy of: When your child is missing: A family survival guide

Scott Buhrmaster is Vice President of Training and Editorial for, which was awarded the “Quill & Badge Award” for Excellence in Journalism by the International Association of Police Unions. He is also the Publisher of Police Marksman magazine and has served as Contributing Editor for Law Officer magazine. He has been a member of the law enforcement training community since 1989, when he began work as Director of Research with Calibre Press, Inc., producers of The Street Survival Seminar.

Throughout his tenure at Calibre, Buhrmaster was involved with virtually every aspect of the company’s officer survival training efforts, from the planning, creation and marketing of the organization’s award-winning textbooks and videos to developing and securing training content for the Seminar. In 1995, he was named Director of the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline®, an Internet-based officer survival training service he helped found. In less than five years, Newsline readership grew from 25 officers to more than 250,000 in 26 countries, making it one of the most popular training vehicles in law enforcement history. His efforts now focus on providing training and information to the nearly 400,000 officers worldwide who visit every month.

Prior to joining Police1, Buhrmaster, who also serves on the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center and stands as an active member of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, was President of The Buhrmaster Consulting Group, an international consulting practice for the law enforcement training sector and the publishing industry. Scott may be reached at