A behind-the-scenes look at N.J. police team’s response when a child goes missing
"It’s like an hourglass. You flip it over and we’re fighting against time"
By Matt Gray
GLOUCESTER COUNTY, N.J. — A parent’s worst nightmare is playing out at a South Jersey park.
Police huddle in the parking lot devising a search plan.
Detectives walk door-to-door interviewing neighbors, while officers show a photo to passing motorists.
A search and rescue team gathers its gear. Eager K-9s are ready to get to work.
It’s only a drill, but that doesn’t matter to those involved in a full-scale training exercise last week in Gloucester County.
Their scenario involves locating a young girl who disappeared from Malaga Lake Park in Franklin Township and they are treating it like the real deal.
The Gloucester County Child Abduction Response Team (CART) is seeking certification with the U.S. Department of Justice and the training exercise is intended to put their skills to the test.
This would be the first county CART team in New Jersey to earn that certification — they are the first to seek it — and only the 29th in the nation.
Under a 2008 directive from the state Attorney General, each county was required to create a CART. The only time Gloucester’s has been fully activated was 10 years ago when a 12-year-old girl, Autumn Pasquale, was killed, drawing national attention.
The team consists of about 120 people, including members of the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, and representatives from federal, state and local agencies, including police from each department in the county.
“CART is very similar to a SWAT activation. It’s a group of trained individuals that respond whenever kids are missing to allocate resources to locate the child,” says Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office Lt. Stacie Lick, who works in the agency’s special victims unit and coordinates the CART program.
Lick, who created the county’s CART in 2008, is overseeing the drill, which she organized. Her daughter is playing the part of the missing child.
In the scenario, a mom took her 12-year-old to the park and stepped away to take a phone call. When she returned, the girl was gone. The mom looked for her for about 10 minutes before contacting police.
It’s reminiscent of a case in neighboring Cumberland County that remains unsolved after 2 1/2 years.
Dulce Maria Alavez was 5 years old when she vanished from Bridgeton City Park during a family outing in September 2019. Her family gathered at the park on Monday to mark her 8th birthday.
In the Gloucester County training exercise, participants don’t know if their fictional missing child was abducted or just wandered off.
“We don’t know for sure, and that’s how we usually get cases that come in,” Lick explains.
She’s been working since January to organize the drill, which included creating evidence for searchers to find and coordinating with a few neighbors to provide “tips” as police go looking for clues. They even filmed surveillance video showing the missing child walking past a local business.
The goal is to test every element of the team.
“We did a trail for the bloodhounds so that they could train and track her through the woods,” Lick says. “Evidence was planted so that they could find it. The drones went out to see if they could see the evidence. We tried to make it so that everyone was participating.”
At the park in Malaga, a line of police vehicles from around the county pulls in to join Franklin Police personnel coordinating at the scene.
At a roadblock canvas along Route 40, officers stop cars and share the child’s photo. Some of the motorists are participants in the drill and share tips with the officers.
They even recruited the media to assist. In my capacity as a journalist, I’m asked to provide a tip to investigators that a resident reported seeing the child along the beach area at the park.
Many of those involved in this drill have experienced this real-life situation.
It was 2012 when 12-year-old Autumn Pasquale disappeared in Clayton, prompting a Gloucester County CART activation and widespread search. It turned out that she had been strangled the day she disappeared by a teenager who later pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. His brother pleaded to an obstruction charge in the case.
Autumn is always on Lick’s mind as she approaches a new case.
“I was the incident commander on that job,” she says. “We learned a lot from that. We grew tremendously from that response.”
Back at the park, drone crews quickly set up their mobile ground stations and their vehicles zip skyward, kicking up small clouds of dust as they rise above the scene and begin their scans of the largely wooded area. Some of the drones are equipped with heat-sensing technology.
What the drones see can also be viewed a few miles away at the search command center set up in a firehouse parking lot.
A hulking white vehicle — the mobile field communications unit for Gloucester County Office of Emergency Management — is deployed for any large-scale incident, says Deputy Emergency Management Coordinators Gerard Moore.
It looks like a giant motorhome, but houses everything needed to manage a crisis on the ground, including video and cellular communications, two dispatcher stations and a command area where incident leaders work.
“We have full capabilities as we would in our comms center in Clayton,” Moore explains.
This setup allows dispatchers to focus solely on this mission, he says, while staff back at their main communications center can handle all other emergency activity in the county.
Thanks to technology, the team can use a digital grid overlay of a search area and work block by block to coordinate their work, says GCPO Chief of Detectives Tom Gilbert.
Those tools and exercises like these are vital when responding to time-sensitive incidents. In child-abduction cases, for example, it’s understood that an abductor will usually act quickly if they intend to harm a child, he notes.
“We want everybody to know each other and speak in common language and be able to deploy the resources,” Gilbert says. “It’s like an hourglass. You flip it over and we’re fighting against time. You’ve got to really be on top of your game.”
The Pasquale case was the only child disappearance that has prompted a full CART activation in the county, but the team investigates about 50 missing children cases a year, Lick says. Many cases involve teen runaways or a child who wandered off.
“We do a lot of partial activations. I may bring out certain members to assist because we need resources.”
Immediate actions may include reverse 911 calls to area homes, contacting family and friends of the missing child and bringing out K-9s.
She looks at various factors, including disabilities and whether the child relies on medications. Weather conditions are also considered.
Most cases are resolved quickly, with kids safely recovered.
The CART response will always be based on the circumstances, not on public expectations, Lick says.
She goes back to something she heard at the command post during the Pasquale case when a representative from the state police was asked about sending out searchers to various locations without any real reason for doing so.
“Listen, we are not going to search because it looks good,” the trooper responded.
“I’ll never forget that, because I feel like sometimes the departments do things because of public perceptions,” Lick says. “They want the public to see their response. But it’s really not beneficial. That’s where problems get created in the response to missing kids. You need to have a purpose for what you’re doing. And if there’s no purpose for it, then you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Her team takes every missing child case seriously, “because they all could end with a homicide investigation,” she says. “I’m very passionate about this kind of work, which is why we’re involved in getting the certification.”
Officials overseeing the certification process closely monitor every aspect of the day’s activities.
Certification confirms the team is carrying out its duties correctly in how it manages different aspects of its response.
“The certification makes sure you have that all prepared and organized ahead of time,” Lick says. “They also review your policy and procedures and make sure that it’s in place and covers everything that it needs to — and that you are following procedure.”
Certification is also a matter of liability protection.
Police agencies are often sued over how missing person cases are handled. In the Pasquale case, her family sued the county and police departments, but the case was later dismissed.
“The family complained about it and went to the Attorney General’s office,” Lick says. “We had to provide all of our documentation to the Attorney General’s office and they declared that we followed our policy and procedure and that we were fine in our response. So I think it does help that you have a policy and that you follow it.”
Back at the command center, activity ramps up by early afternoon as police vet new leads and Lick communicates with leaders on the ground.
Soon after, the drill is over and I have one more job — to ask questions about the outcome of the search during a press conference. In keeping with the reality of the drill, little information is revealed, apart from the good news that the girl had been located at a nearby Wawa and is unharmed.
After a round of congratulations and a discussion of any concerns, the team disbands for the afternoon and members return to their normal duties until the next time their CART skills are needed.
Lick is pleased with the exercise.
“It was outstanding. A lot better than I really expected,” she says. “I got great feedback from everyone that participated.”
She heard positive feedback from the federal assessors, too, but a review process must be completed before a decision on certification is made. A decision could come in the next several weeks.
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