DOJ guide helps parents, police work together to find a missing child, Part 3

By Scott Buhrmaster
For The Street Survival Newsline

Part 3 of a Special 4-Part Newsline Series (View Part 1)

The Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has released a guide for the parents of missing children titled, "When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide." An overwhelming number of requests from the general public for this guide have resulted in a considerable delay in distributing copies. As a means of helping distribute this important information to officers so they can share it with the parents of missing children in their area, the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline has offered to transmit portions of this guide to Newsline members around the world.

In a chapter titled, "The Media," the guide shares tips that can help the parents of missing children use the media to their advantage and further - not jeopardize - your investigation.

As you are well aware, the media can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how it's handled. This is especially true in missing child cases where parents, who most likely have not been trained in media relations, are approached by reporters for comments. If the parents handle these interviews strategically, they can help everyone involved in the investigation by using the far reach of the media to further the cause of finding their child. But if information that should remain confidential is released or inappropriate comments are made, the case could be jeopardized.

Following are some of the tips for parents on handling the media shared in the guide:

[Sidenote: As mentioned in the guide, it is advisable to strongly recommend that the family members of a missing child consult you before they begin talking with the media and to keep you abreast of their contacts with reporters].

Conducting media interviews:

Articulate the most crucial information in every interview

Before you set up an interview, be sure you are ready. Be prepared to discuss information pertinent to the case - but BE SURE THAT LAW ENFORCEMENT HAS BEEN CONSULTED about what information can be released and what should remain confidential. Give essential information consistently to everyone in the media, especially the following items:

• Pictures of your child, in both black and white, if possible.

• A description of the clothing your child was wearing and of the items your child had in his or her possession, such as a book bag, backpack, or bicycle, along with identifying characteristics and personal traits.

• A telephone number for people to call in leads.

Ask that your child’s picture be included in every interview you grant

This is crucial, because often the only thing that is clearly known is what your child looks like. Make sure that the picture given to the media resembles your child and is suitable for distribution. Always hold up a picture of your child during an interview and insist that his or her face be shown as part of the story. Ask radio stations to include a description of your child as part of their story.

Limit the number of points you want to make and keep them simple

Organize your thoughts and ideas, perhaps by writing them down, before you speak to an interviewer. Stay as calm and focused as you can. Remember that you will be given a very small amount of air time. That means that the more you say, the less control you will have over what portion of an interview the media will play.

Try to cover the most important points first and to contain your answers to 10- to 20-second “sound bytes”

Short answers are more likely to be used than long, drawn-out answers. Also, if you try to cover too much, you may find that your most important points are left out of the story.

Make your child “real” by sharing stories that show his or her wit, interests and other endearing qualities

If you personalize your plea by showing favorite toys, telling short anecdotes, and airing representative videotapes of your child, people are more apt to listen and remember and to feel they have a reason to care about your plight. However, don't loan any original items to the media, because you might not get them back. Always label your child's pictures, videos, and possessions.

Keep control of the story

Be prepared to field difficult questions. Although many reporters have families and will empathize with you, their job is to give the public an interesting story. Some may appear to be skeptical of you - at least initially - because of well-publicized disappearances in which the parents turned out to be the culprits.

Regardless of the questions asked, keep the story focused on your missing child

If a reporter digs a skeleton out of your closet, don't be afraid to say that a previous event has nothing to do with the present disappearance. You may need to point out that members of the same family can be totally different in terms of behavior, academic performance, and emotional maturity.

Be patient with reporters. Many of them may be young and inexperienced.

It is difficult for someone who is not yet a parent to imagine what you are going through. If you are asked an inappropriate question, don't answer it - andante explain why it is irrelevant.

Do not lie to the media

If you are caught in a lie, reporters will never trust you again.But remember that you do not have to answer every question. The only reason you are giving an interview is to find your child. You don't have any obligation to help the media carry a story in a direction you don't want it to go. If you believe a question is insensitive or irrelevant, either say so and decline to answer or else give the information you want to present regardless of the question that was asked. Take control of the situation. Make the points you have to make and insist on getting your message across.

Do not disclose information to the media that your law enforcement contact told you to keep confidential

Consult with your law enforcement agency in advance to find out what information can be released and what information should remain private. Remember that there is no "off the record" comment. If reporters want confidential information, they will try to get it. Consider holding joint press conferences with law enforcement as a way to keep information flowing to the media yet protect confidential details.

Never publicly criticize law enforcement

Sometimes reporters ask questions intended to create controversy over law enforcement's handling of the case. Resist the temptation to criticize law enforcement, however, if you are unhappy with something that has been done. You want the story to be about your child, not about a controversy with law enforcement. You also don't want to risk alienating the people who are spearheading the effort to find you child. Instead, channel any complaints you have through the appropriate law enforcement person or office.


Preared a media package and give it to all representatives of the media

The media package should contain basic information about your child, including:

• A complete description of your child and of the clothing he or she was wearing at the time of the disappearance.

• A description of the place where your child was last seen.

• Black and white color photos.

• A phone number for people to call with possible leads.

• Details of the reward, if one is being offered.

• Other pertinent information that could help in the recovery of your child, such as a suspicious vehicle near the location where your child was last seen.

A media package will ensure that all reporters start with the same information and will reduce the amount of time you spend answering basic questions. When you prepare a media package, make enough copies to distribute, then keep the original in a safe place in case you need it again in the future.

Set ground rules

• Schedule specific times and locations so reporters know when and where they will be able to ask questions and obtain information. Remember that you control the situation - the media do not control you.

• Choose a location that is convenient for you but that allows the media the space they need to cover the story. For example, you may feel comfortable holding interviews either outside your house or inside one room. That way, you can allow the media to glimpse your child's personal life without letting them become too invasive.

• Don't open up your home to the media without restrictions or limitations. If you do, you will lose your privacy, and the presence of reporters could interfere with officers working at the scene.

• Don't feel that you are personally obligated to provide all interviews or to participate in all media events. Ask law enforcement, your family spokesperson, and other family members to help.

• Remember that you have the ability to set limits in terms of timing, scheduling, and making rules concerning the use of pictures of your children. Be sure that the media are aware of your rules and that you expect them to be followed.

The guide also contains a "Victim's Bill of Rights" written by the National Victim Center in Arlington (VA) which outlines important points for the parents of missing children to keep in mind when dealing with the media:

1. You have the right to say no to an interview.

2. You have the right to select the spokesperson or advocate of your choice.

3. You have the right to select the time and location for media interviews.

4. You have the right to request a specific reporter.

5. You have the right to refuse an interview with a specific reporter even though you have granted interviews to other reporters.

6. You have the right to say no to an interview even though you have previously granted interviews.

7. You have the right to release a written statement through a spokesperson in lieu of an interview.

8. You have the right to exclude children from interviews.

9. You have the right to refrain from answering any questions that make you uncomfortable or that seem inappropriate.

10. You have the right to know in advance what direction the story about your victimization is going to take.

11. You have the right to ask for review of your quotations in a storyline prior to publication.

12. You have the right to avoid a press conference atmosphere and to speak to only one reporter at a time.

13. You have the right to demand a retraction when inaccurate information is reported.

14. You have the right to ask that offensive photographs or visuals be omitted from airing or publication.

15. You have the right to conduct a television interview using a silhouette or a newspaper interview without having your photograph taken.

16. You have the right to completely give your side of the story related to your victimization.

17. You have the right to refrain from answering reporters' questions during trial.

18. You have the right to file a formal complaint against as reporter.

19. You have the right to grieve in privacy.

20. You have the right to suggest training for the media on how they can prevent additional traumatization for victims.

21. You have the right to be treated with dignity and respect by the media at all times.

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

Final Installment: Tips specifically for law enforcement personnel


Nat'l Center for Missing and Exploited Children
2101 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 550, Arlington, VA 22201-3052
(800) 843-5678
Hotline: (800) 826-7653
Fax: (303) 235-4067

Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit (CASKU)
FBI, Quantico, VA 22135
(540) 720-4700
Fax: (540) 720-4790

Morgan P. Hardiman Task Force on Missing and Exploited Children
FBI, Quantico, VA 22135
(540) 720-4760
Fax: (540) 720-4792

FBI Headquarters
Office of Crimes Against Children
935 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20535-0001
(202) 324-3666
Fax: (202) 324-2731

Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations c/o Jacob
Wetterling Foundation
32 First Ave., NW, St. Joseph, MN 56374
(320) 363-0470
Fax: (320) 363-0473

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