Feds to issue missing-children data

By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
December 19, 2005

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Justice Department said Monday it will soon begin
reporting how many children go missing each year in America, ending its
15-year violation of an act of Congress meant to improve how police
report lost, kidnapped and runaway children.

The FBI, which is part of the department, in the past refused to issue
such information to the press or general public because, officials said,
the data in the National Crime Information Center computer database are
confidential police files.

“The important thing isn’t who gets any blame for this. The important
thing is to correct this in the future,” said FBI Special Agent Richard
Kolko. “Anyway we can bring this terrible situation more to the forefront
to assist law enforcement and parents to recover missing and exploited
children has to be viewed as an asset.”

The Justice Department, through the FBI, will report how many children go
missing each year, as well as their age, gender and race. But officials
will not report geographic information that would have helped identify
local police departments in violation of the reporting standards required
by the National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990.

“We don’t want to embarrass people. We want to convince them to
cooperate,” Kolko said.

Missing-children advocates took the news as only a partial victory.

“This has really been embarrassing and the federal government should be
embarrassed,” said David Thelen, founder of the Committee for Missing
Children, a Georgia-based advocacy group. “Without good statistics, we
don’t know what the problem is or where it is.”

Congress, through the landmark 1990 legislation, ordered local police to
immediately report all missing children to the FBI and to each state’s
clearinghouse for missing and exploited children. It also ordered the
Justice Department of make “an annual statistical summary” of children
reported to the FBI to ensure compliance with the new law.

The Justice Department has never made such an accounting. Scripps Howard
News Service executives wrote President Bush and Attorney General Alberto
Gonzales in May urging them to begin reporting the information.

Scripps Howard, using data provided by the National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children, found that several major police departments,
including New York City’s and the U.S. Navy’s Criminal Investigative
Service, were in regular violation of the 1990 act.

Some police wait days or even weeks before reporting missing children to
state and federal authorities. Others, as a policy, ignored teenagers
suspected of running away.

Honolulu police, for example, last year reported only 10 missing
juveniles to the FBI even though it also arrested 2,791 runaways. The New
York Police Department reported only half the number of missing children
that either Los Angeles or Chicago reported, even though New York has
double the juvenile population of those other cities.

“The geography of where the kids are missing is more important to me than
anything else,” said Thelen. “Many of the states are simply doing this
wrong.”

But Kolko said it is not the FBI’s job to humiliate local police
departments. “We don’t want to dime anybody out here,” he said.

Kolko said the FBI will issue missing-children information for 2005 in
January, reporting both to Congress and posting the data on its Web site.
He said the bureau will also probably retroactively report
missing-children data for earlier years.

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