Police fail at missing-child reporting

Dozens of departments aren’t following federal law, investigation shows

Monday, May 16, 2005


Fifteen-year-old Bryona Williams had been missing for four days before
the Detroit Police Department reported her disappearance to state and
federal authorities. Her half-naked, raped, strangled and decomposing
body was found two weeks later, face down on the floor of an abandoned
inner-city building.

As with thousands of other missing-children cases nationwide, police
mishandled Bryona’s disappearance two years ago by failing to immediately
report her to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, as required by
federal law.

A first-of-its-kind study of computer files at the National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children conducted by Scripps Howard News Service
has found that dozens of police departments across the nation failed to
report at least 4,498 runaway, lost and abducted children despite the
National Child Search Assistance Act, passed by Congress in 1990.

Seventeen of these unreported children are dead, and 131 are still

“But why? Why?” said Bryona’s grandmother, Nadine Whigham, after learning
that more than a third of Detroit’s missing children were not correctly
reported to federal and state police during the past five years. “This is

Detroit officials concede they should have acted faster and are rewriting
their missing-child reporting policy. Until they reported her missing,
the only officers who knew she was missing were those directly involved
with the family.

“The more time that elapses, the better the chance a missing child will
be found dead,” Whigham said. “I can’t sleep sometimes, still thinking
about this.”

The National Child Search Assistance Act requires police to immediately
accept any report of a missing child and file that report with federal
authorities and the state’s missing-child clearinghouse. Failure to
report often makes it impossible for police anywhere to determine if a
child is missing. While most missing children are returned home safely,
police have no way of knowing which children are in real danger.

Geography seems to matter in whether a missing child is correctly
reported. Police in Northern urban areas and rural Southern areas are
most likely to mishandle missing cases, while authorities in suburban
areas and Western states generally had the best records.

Washington state police agencies failed to report at least 76 missing
children to the FBI from 2000 through 2004, but did better than in most
states, the study found.

John Walsh, host of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted,” whose 6-year-old son
Adam was kidnapped from a Florida shopping mall and brutally murdered in
1981, is a vocal advocate for missing children.

“No police agency should have the arbitrary right to determine the fate
of a child like this. And non-compliance (with federal law) is a death
sentence for some children,” he said.

Florida Rep. Mark Foley, a vocal advocate for missing children, said he
was surprised with the results of the study.

“How can we find missing children if they are not reported up the chain
of command? We track library books better than we track our missing
children. Kids are being allowed to fall through the cracks,” said Foley,
co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

Three major law enforcement agencies — police departments in Detroit and
Honolulu and the U.S. Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service, which
oversees security at all Navy bases — are rewriting their
missing-children policies following questions raised by the study.

Police officials around the country offered several excuses for their
reporting failures, including ignorance of the law, a backlog of
missing-child reports and confusion over the best way to handle such

The study — based on 37,665 missing children reported to the National
Center for Missing and Exploited Children from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec.
31, 2004 — found that 12 percent of those children were not reported to
the FBI.

The center receives only a fraction of the known number of reports on
missing children, although often they are the most serious cases. The
center tracked about 1 percent of the 3.4 million missing-child cases
over that five-year period. Trends found in this study suggest hundreds
of thousands of missing children were improperly reported during that

Whether a case was reported to the FBI was determined by National Center
investigators who repeatedly check the national missing-persons database
to make sure a child has been correctly entered after being reported

The study found that the rate at which police mishandle missing-child
reports varies considerably from one city to the next. Only 9 percent of
missing children in Los Angeles are not immediately reported to the FBI
database, compared with a 31 percent failure rate in New York City.

And many police departments have a perfect record.

“We’ve been doing this so long, it is just routine. I’m surprised
everyone else isn’t doing it,” said Chief Paul Walters of the Santa Ana,
Calif., Police Department. “One of the most important things police do is
enter information. That’s how we catch murderers many years after the
fact. They get stopped on the road for some routine reason, and we find
they’re wanted. It’s the same way with finding missing children,” Walters

Yet other cities have reported bizarre statistics that have gone
unnoticed and unchallenged by federal or state authorities.

The Honolulu Police Department last year reported only 10 missing
children to the FBI, but the city reported making 2,791 arrests of
runaway children.

Other findings:

Very young children are much less likely to be reported missing. In fact,
32 percent of missing infants were incorrectly reported, compared with
only 10 percent of teenagers 16 or 17 years old.

Some racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to be correctly
reported missing. Only 9 percent of white and Asian children were not
reported to the FBI, compared with 17 percent of black children, 13
percent of biracial children, 12 percent of Hispanic children and 10
percent of American Indian children.

Ninety-one percent of cases categorized as “non-family abductions” were
reported, compared with 82 percent of family abductions in which a parent
without legal custody was believed to have taken the child. (Police are
known to give lower priority to abductions involving a custody fight,
even though federal reporting laws make no such distinctions.)

Some legislative fixes have already been proposed at the state level.
Under a new law, Virginia police must report a missing child to state and
federal authorities within two hours.

“I am absolutely convinced that if every state adopted a two-hour rule,
we would save a lot of children’s lives,” said Virginia State Delegate
Stephen Shannon, sponsor of the law.

© 1998-2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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