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How two agencies collaborated to revolutionize missing persons cases

Think about the time and energy that goes into a typical case of a runaway child. A child leaves home and someone phones the police. A patrol officer responds, writes a report, and enters the information into the Missing Persons system. An investigator is assigned the case and puts additional effort into locating the child. Luckily, most children reported as missing return home. Hopefully the child’s return is reported so police can remove the information from the Missing Persons system and the investigator closes the case.

But important issues remain: Why did the child run away? Will they run away again? Where was the child, and what did they do while they were gone?

Most law enforcement agencies are handling this scenario in the same manner they have for years — the response model has not changed. This problem is persistent. If your agency’s incidence of runaways is the same year after year you should ask, “What can be done differently?”

In an article on innovative practices in response to human trafficking in The Police Chief (July 2014), I highlighted the work of the Gloucester Township Police Department in Blackwood, New Jersey, and the San Antonio (Texas) Police Department.

Both agencies realized running away from home is often the first step in becoming a criminal offender, runaways often witness criminal activity and they’re potential victims of trafficking.

As a result of this understanding, both agencies independently created new protocols to screen runaway youth. This involves working in new ways both within the police department, and with partner agencies such as social services, juvenile probation, and other community partners. The results have included increased identification of trafficking victims, but in addition, information gained from new screening processed have led to arrests in other types of criminal cases.

Most importantly, an effort is made to determine why the youth ran away and to offer them the assistance they need to prevent running away in the future. These successes are the result of not only the law enforcement agencies’ efforts, but from a collaborative approach involving non-law enforcement partners.

These two communities, working in collaboration with partners, created improved processes for the persistent problem of runaway youth. No single partner could have achieved success without the involvement of the other partners.

John Vanek is a leadership, collaboration, and anti-human trafficking consultant and speaker working with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations, academic institutions and private sector companies. John served 25 years with the San Jose Police Department (retiring in the rank of lieutenant), holds a Master of Arts in Leadership, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Contact John Vanek