FBI finally complies with law on missing children

By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
March 09, 2006

WASHINGTON – The FBI, for the first time, has complied with a 1990 act of
Congress by issuing a public accounting of 662,196 lost, runaway and
kidnapped children reported by police to state and federal authorities
last year.

Fifty-eight percent of the missing children reported to federal
authorities in 2005 were girls, according to the FBI report, and 33
percent were black – a disproportionately high percentage that surprised
advocates for missing children.

“These are very interesting and important statistics,” said sociologist
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center
at the University of New Hampshire. “This shows a pretty dramatic
over-representation of black kids.”

The FBI in the last two weeks released the records at the request of
Scripps Howard News Service. The records show that missing-children cases
- at least those actually reported to the FBI – have been declining
during the past 10 years, down from a peak of 791,687 cases in 1995.

But the number of cases bumped up 7 percent in 2005 after several police
departments began for the first time to immediately report missing
children. These departments admitted they’d been violating federal law by
delaying their reports to the FBI – often in hopes the children will
return home on their own – or by entirely ignoring cases of suspected
runaways. Missing-children advocates warn that police must intervene
quickly – usually within hours – to prevent homicides in
stranger-abduction cases.

Finkelhor called the release of the FBI files “a real coup.” He said he
is contacting missing-children advocates nationwide to rally support for
more detailed data in future FBI reports.

“This might be a very auspicious moment to make some recommendations
about what we think ought to be regularly available,” Finkelhor said.

The FBI steadfastly maintained for many years that computer records at
the National Crime Information Center are confidential, and rarely made
missing-children data public. That policy violated provisions of the
National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990, which requires annual
statistical summaries to assure Congress that local police are obeying
its mandate that missing-children cases be “immediately” reported to
state and federal authorities.

Scripps Howard News Service first contacted federal officials about the
FBI’s failure in May. The FBI reversed its policy in December and
promised to issue public accountings of missing children annually.

“The important thing isn’t who gets the blame for this. The important
thing is to correct this in the future,” FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko
said then.

The bureau still refuses Scripps Howard’s request for geographic
information showing where children are reported missing. A Scripps Howard
study last year of records at the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children found that dozens of major police departments,
including New York City’s, violate federal law by waiting days or even
weeks before reporting missing children to state and federal authorities.

“We’ve never done this. It’s not our place to give out report cards on
the states,” FBI senior spokesman Paul Bresson said last week.

But other kinds of data the bureau has recently released provide
never-before-seen details about missing-children cases.

Most curious is the discovery that a third of missing-children records
for 2005 were of black children, nearly three times blacks’ share of the
general population. Previous estimates based on Finkelhor’s studies and
records at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
suggested that black children account for about a fifth of the nation’s
missing children.

“That certainly does not parallel previous estimates,” Finkelhor said.
“It may be that communities where blacks live tend to be heavily policed.
Black parents may rely upon police more (than other groups) when their
kids go missing. There also may be simply more missing-child episodes
among black families.”

Missing-children experts have long known that runaway children are
disproportionately female. Teenage girls mature much faster than boys and
are more likely to want to leave home before reaching their legal
majority, 18 in most states.

The FBI data shows that two-thirds of all missing-children reports were
for 15-, 16- or 17-year-old youths. Only 2,223 infants were reported last
year.

The files also show that local police classified 16,897 cases – or
slightly less than 3 percent – as “endangered,” meaning authorities
feared the children had been kidnapped or were in the company of a
dangerous adult.

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