Police sharpen focus on missing children

Program promotes better investigations

May 29, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Earlier this month, Baltimore County police were called to Hillcrest Elementary School after a 9-year-old developmentally disabled boy was reported missing.

Police, using dogs and helicopters, searched for the boy near the school without success. A short time later, they found him at his foster home.

Authorities say the case is not unusual: Children reported missing are often found hiding at home. But police don't always look there.

That's one of the reasons the Baltimore County Police Department joined with the Missing and Exploited Childrens Association (MECA), a local nonprofit group, on a three-year project aimed at teaching Maryland police how to effectively investigate missing-child cases. The goal is to promote uniformity of approach in such searches and to minimize mistakes.

The $68,000 project, recently completed, was paid for with public and private money. It includes a training video and an 88-page guide that will be distributed to all law enforcement and child protection agencies in the state. In addition, 20,000 field guides were printed - one for every police officer in the state.

"Our whole goal was to make this a training tool and then give it away," said John Worden, counseling team supervisor for the county Police Department and a MECA member. "The bottom line for us is when a child is reported missing to have those investigations done thoroughly, quickly and accurately."

MECA is sponsoring a series of training classes across the state; the first was held May 9 at the Baltimore County Police Training Academy.

There were 12,663 reported missing-child cases in the state in 1999, down from 15,415 cases in 1995, according to the Maryland Center for Missing Children. The figures include runaways, children abducted by family members or strangers, and children who get lost or are abandoned.

The problem, says one expert, is that police often lack training in how to pursue children who have disappeared.

"Patrol officers on the street that take initial reports do not get very much training in taking missing-child cases," said Carla T. Proudfoot, executive director of the Maryland Center for Missing Children. "I will say a lot of issues came with smaller police departments."

Proudfoot, who also belongs to MECA, declined to identify departments that she believes have mishandled missing-child cases.

MECA has identified four problem areas:

Lack of training. Some police academies spend as little as 15 minutes on the topic, Worden said.

Lack of a uniform statewide standard for investigating missing-child cases.

Lack of coordination between police departments and county social service departments.

Lack of familiarity with the latest investigative technologies.

Lee Goldman, an administrator with the Maryland Police Training Commission, which certifies training programs, supports Worden's project. But Goldman said he believes training academies are doing an adequate job teaching police recruits the skills needed to investigate reports of missing children.

"I am not aware of any problems," he said.

Goldman said his agency requires training academies to teach recruits how to handle missing-child cases, but does not dictate how much time they should spent on the subject.

"We do not tell the agency how to teach," he said, noting that academies must cover 508 training objectives. "We just tell what has to be taught."

Goldman said flexibility is needed in the system so local police departments can tailor their training programs to local crime trends.

"There is a difference between a police department that has 900 officers and a police department with five officers," Goldman said. "They do not need the same yardstick."

Lt. Gary Vernen, a Harford County sheriff's deputy who attended the May 9 training class, disagreed. Vernen, coordinator of Harford County's Missing Persons Unit, said state training standards need to be beefed up.

"There definitely needs to be uniformity," he said.

Vernen and others say the lack of uniform standards can be troublesome when agencies attempt to work together to find missing children. Poorly trained officers also risk bungling investigations in what could be life-and-death situations.

Police officers sometimes order extensive searches without first checking the child's home. Or they search the house but fail to treat it as a possible crime scene and run the risk of contaminating evidence, Vernen said.

Worden and Proudfoot said they have seen cases where officers told the parents of missing or abducted children that they have to wait 24 hours before filing a missing-persons report. The waiting period was eliminated in 1985.

"I would say there is at least one officer in most of the surrounding jurisdictions that may be under that false impression," Worden said.

Worden, Proudfoot and Sgt. Ed Dunlap, supervisor of the Baltimore Police Department's Missing Persons Unit and a MECA member, created the training video after consulting with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The theme of the training materials is that "time is critical," Worden said.

Titled "My Child is Missing," the 45-minute training video discusses the roles different people play in an investigation and techniques that should be used to track down missing children.

Worden said officers must be able to give priority to a missing-child call and have access to whatever investigative resources they need.

"You've got to let the facts dictate your response or actions," said Sgt. John Aksomitus, head of the Baltimore County Police Department's Family Investigative Team. "The video is a good wake-up to the rank-and-file officer that, `Hey, these are things you've got to be looking at.'"

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