9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Runaways: Treat Every Missing Child Report as if the Child is in Immediate Danger

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, March 2012
Written by Sheila Hanna-Wiles, RPL, education and training administrator for APCO Institute

SCENARIO 1:  Fourteen-year-old Lisa leaves a note to her parents stating she doesn't like living with them anymore and will find somewhere else to live.  The parents last saw Lisa at 10 p.m. the night before and found the note at 6 a.m.  Lisa's parents call 9-1-1 immediately after discovering the note.  This is the conversation between Lisa's mother and the 9-1-1 calltaker:

Calltaker: 9-1-1, where is your emergency?

Mother:  123 Adams Road.  My daughter has run away.

Calltaker:  Ma'am how do you know your daughter ran away?

Mother:  Because she left a note that said whe didn't like living here anymore and was going to live somewhere else.

Calltaker:  Has she done this before?

Mother:  Yes, a couple of times but she has always come back home in a couple of hours.

Calltaker:  How long has she been gone this time?

Mother:  I don't know.  We saw her at 10 p.m. last night.

Calltaker:  OK, I'm sending an officer to take a report.

Both parties hung up.

The calltaker dispatches an officer to talk to Lisa's mother.  She advises the officer that the subject has a history of running away from home.  Feeling no urgency to get to the house to take the report, the officer decides to drop his radio off at the station for maintenance on his way to the call.

The officer takes the report and requests a BOLO (Be on the Lookout) be sent out to neighboring jurisdictions.  This request came approximately 1 1/2 hours after the original call was received.  The officer advises communications staff to enter the report into NCIC (National Crime Information Center) "when they get time."  The report is never entered into NCIC.

Approximately 30 minutes later, another officer in a neighboring town pulls a car over for speeding.  The officer runs the license of the driver and asks for identification of the passenger.  The passenger produces a school ID badge.  The officer runs both names through NCIC and both are clear.  The officer gives the driver a ticket for speeding and sends them on their way.

The next morning a report comes in of an abandoned vehicle in a local shopping center parking lot.  The officer runs the license plate through NCIC and finds out that this same vehicle was stopped the day before for speeding.  The officer looks in the vehicle and notices blood on the seats.  He forces the trunk open and finds the body of a deceased female.  The female is later identified as Lisa.

SCENARIO 2:  Twelve-year-old Bobby loves the computer that was given to him by his parents for Christmas.  Bobby has befriended several people on different website chat rooms.  One friend in particular, Claire, has become Bobby's favorite friend.  Monday evening, Bobby's parents go to his bedroom to tell him goodnight and find him missing.  Several items of clothing are missing, as well as the money he had saved for an upcoming school trip.  Bobby did not leave a note, nor has he made any references about being unhappy with his life at home.

Bobby's parents immediately called 9-1-1.  The following conversation takes place between Bobby's father and the 9-1-1 calltaker:

Calltaker:  9-1-1, where is your emergency?

Father:  100 Court Dr.  My son is missing.

Calltaker:  Sir, how do you know your son is missing?

Father:  Because some of his clothes are missing and the money he has been saving is also missing, and he should be in his bedroom getting ready for bed.  He was in his bedroom earlier.

Calltaker:  Has he done this before?

Father:  No.

Calltaker:  How long has he been gone?

Father:  I'm not sure, but less than two hours.

Calltaker:  OK, I am sending an officer to take a report.  In the meantime, can you give me a description of your son, what he was wearing?

Father:  (Gives description of son.  Clothing, age, etc.)

Calltaker:  Do you know where he could have run to?  Any close friends or family?

Father:  I can't think of any place in particular but he talked a lot about a girl he met on the Internet.  I believe her name is Claire.

Calltaker:  Do you know where Claire lives or do you have a phone number or last name for her?

Father:  I don't know where she lives, and I don't know her phone number or last name.  I thought I could find it on his computer, but I don't know his passwords to get into his computer.

Calltaker:  OK, do you have a recent picture of your son?  If so, please have it ready for the officer.

The officer arrives on scene.  Both parties hang up.

The officer takes the report and gets the picture of Bobby.  He immediately confirms that the case meets the AMBER Alert criteria and asks the comm center staff to put him into NCIC and issue an AMBER Alert.

For the next hour, the officer and Bobby's parents try to break into Bobby's computer and retrieve any information they can about "Claire."  Within two hours, the police locate a computer technician who can break passwords.  Just as the technician was able to get into Bobby's computer, the phone rings.  It's Bobby.

Bobby asks his parents to come and pick him up from a local convenience store.  After they pick him up, Bobby tells them the story of meeting Claire on the Internet and how she wanted to meet in person and how they could do fun things forever.  He says she told him that his parents would not like where she lived so he shouldn't tell them where he was going.

Claire had picked Bobby up at the same convenience store earlier.  She took him back to her house where they were suppose to "have fun."  Bobby noticed right off that she looked older than 16 years old, like she had told him in the chat room.

Claire began making sexual advances toward Bobby.  Bobby told her he didn't like what she was doing and it made him feel uncomfortable.  All of a sudden, Claire got angry and screamed for Bobby to get out of her house "now and never come back."  This is when he ran out the door and to the convenience store.  Bobby was able to take officers directly to Claire's house.  After officers made the arrest and did a background check on "Claire," they found out that she was a registered sex offender.

These two stories are not Lifetime movie plots; these are real scenarios that haunt our family, friends and community every day.  These are calls that are received in a comm center every day, somewhere.

Understanding the background of runaways and knowing the level of response that is needed "is unquestionable one of the most critical elements in the entire missing-child investigative process" and will assist in bringing these runaways back home safely, according to Steidel.  "Furthermore, it is recommended that law-enforcement agencies respond to every report of a missing child as if the child is in immediate danger."

A runaway is defined as a child who leaves home without permission and stays away overnight; a child 14 years old or younger (or older and mentally incompetent) who is away from home, chooses not to come home when expected to and stays away overnight; or a child 15 years old or older who is away from home, chooses not to come home and stays away two nights.

Another term you need to know is "thrownaways."  Although closely related to "runaways," thrownaways have different criteria.  Thrownaways are children who are asked or told to leave home by a parent or other household adult and no adequate alternative care has been arranged for the child, and the child is out of the household overnight.  Or it is when a child is away from home and is prevented from returning home by a parent or other household adult and adequate alternative care is not arranged.  Although not necessarily reported to authorities as missing, thrownaways frequently come to the attention of law enforcement.

Youth ages 15-17 years old make up two-thirds of the runaways/thrownaways.  According to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) report findings in 1999, an estimated 1,682,900 youth had run away or been "thrown away."  Twenty-one percent were reported to authorities for purposes of locating the youth.  Seventy-one percent could have been endangered during their runaway/thrownaway episode by virtue of such factors as substance dependency, use of hard drugs, sexual or physical abuse, presence in a place where criminal activity was occurring or very young age (13 or younger).

This is not to say that every child runaway/thrownaway will end up in the worst situation.  Some have been found living with family members or close friends and doing well.

Why these children end up as runaway/thrownaways is almost as important as finding them.  Three things are needed in order for a child to run away: ability, willingness and opportunity.  Most kids have the ability and opportunity but need the willingness.  Willingness comes from many different factors or circumstances, such as stress, not wanting to get into trouble for something they did, a power struggle, substance abuse or not wanting to go to school.

Another reason that sparks the willingness to run away is dreaming of a better life outside the home.  The dream consists mostly of "no rules and I'm my own boss."

Some kids run away because of drug and alcohol abuse.  The kids are addicted or using more than their parents know about.  Usually, their goal is to be able to use it freely and not hide it.

Sadly, some kids run away because they are living in a home where they are criticized constantly.

If you take all these reasons and look closely, the bottom line reason is because these kids don't have good problem-solving skills.  Running away is the easiest fix to the problems.  They choose to run from the problem instead of looking for alternate options to fix the problem.

The manner in which the initial call is handled by the public safety telecommunicator forms the foundation and direction of the overall response to the missing child.  The attitude a telecommunicator possesses during the onset of the call will manipulate the handling of the call.  As with any emergency call, a telecommunicator must treat each call as a new call regardless of how many times the person has called to report their child missing.  The telecommunicator is tasked with gathering the facts surrounding the incident and relaying those facts to the responders.  They must not pre-judge the call.

When taking calls for runaway/thrownaway children, one of the most important resources a telecommunicator should use to build a response toolbox is the Standard for Public Safety Telecommunicators when Responding to Calls of Missing, Abducted, and Sexually Exploited Children (APCO ANS 1.101.2-2010).  The response toolbox is a pre-incident planning and resource development project.

The goals for the initial intake of information are stated in the APCO ANS standard as:
  1. Obtain and verify incident location along with callback and contact information.  Maintain control of the call.  Communicate the ability to help the caller.
  2. Methodically and strategically obtain information through systematic inquiry to be captured in the agency's intake format.
  3. Recognize the potential urgency of the missing child incident and immediately begin the proper notifications consistent with agency policy.
  4. Perform all information entries and disseminations, both initial and update.  This includes mandatory entry of information about the missing child into the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) National Crime Information Centers (NCIC) databases accurately, including vehicle if known.
These goals should remain at the forefront when developing a response toolbox.  The intake information must be gathered in a timely fashion and methodical manner.

The following questions are consistent with the APCO ANS 1.101.2-2010 standard.  After obtaining the location to send responders and the caller information, the next step is to narrow down the time frame.  Asking the following questions can assist in getting this information efficiently:
  1. When did this happen?
  2. Where was the child last seen?
  3. Any special regional considerations, such as wildlife, weather or wilderness?
  4. With whom was the child last seen?
  5. Who last saw the child? (If the answers to questions 4 and 5 are the same, ensure this information is conveyed to investigative personnel.  Complete the background checks for investigative personnel as authorized.)
  6. What mode of travel was the child using?
  7. What was the direction of travel?
  8. What suspicious circumstances, if any, were there?
  9. What steps have been taken to locate the child?
  10. Has this happened before?
  11. What is the caller's relationship to the child?
  12. What ideas or suspicions exist about where the child may have gone?
  13. What notes, letters, or threats, if any, were located pertaining to this incident?
Once this information is obtained and relayed to the responders, the next part of questioning will center on the child.  Examples of questions to ask are: the child's name, sex, race, age, height, weight, hair color, etc.  The child's clothing description is also gathered at this time.

Finding out about the child's medical condition is another very important element.  Ask the caller if the child has any medical conditions or if the child is taking any medications, and if they are, when the next dose is needed.

The next part of questioning should focus on the suspect/companion.  The preliminary questions are similar to those asked about the child: name, sex, race, age, medical status, etc.  Another important piece of information to gather is the relationship between the child and this person.  Do they know each other?  Are they related?

If the child's mode of travel was in a vehicle, then you should obtain the vehicle's description.  The easiest way to get a vehicle description is to use the acronym CYMBALS: color; year; make/model; body style; additional description (dents, rust, damage); license plate; and state.

SCENARIO 1 RECAP:  The officer arrives at Lisa's parents' home to deliver the news.  "I'm very sorry.  We did all that we could," says the officer.  The hurt and grief Lisa's parents feel at the news of their daughter is indescribable.

Could the telecommunicator and/or officer have made a difference in the outcome?  Yes.

One very important element that was missed in the process was getting the information into NCIC immediately.  Had the information been put into NCIC, then the traffic stop officer would have received a "hit" on Lisa's name.  The telecommunicator and officer pre-judged the call based on the history.  The prejudgment prevailed when the telecommunicator advised the officer of the history, although the history was not relevant to this episode.  And the officer prejudged by making a stop on his way to the call as though time was not an issue.

We know the telecommunicator did not ask enough pertinent questions to help locate Lisa.  She didn't get a description of Lisa, did not ask if she could be accompanied by anyone or obtain her mode of travel.  All of these are examples of information that could have been put in a BOLO immediately.

SCENARIO 2 RECAP:  After the investigator questions Bobby and as he released him to his parents, he said, "We're done questioning Bobby.  You may take him home.  We did everything we could to make sure this moment happened."

Now, it's time for the investigator to question Claire.  "We know your intent was to sexually assault Bobby.  So why did you let him leave?" asks the investigator. 

Claire responds, "The television had an AMBER Alert scroll at the bottom of the screen, and it stated that Bobby could possibly be with me.  I knew it was only a matter of time before you guys would find me.  So I let him go.  We could have had a good time if you would have stayed out of it, and Bobby would have cooperated."

The NCIC entry and the AMBER Alert notification were the key differences in sparing Bobby's life.  The telecommunicator asked several pertinent questions prior to the arrival of the officer, including the possibility of a suspect/companion.  This allowed the information to be gathered and broadcast faster to other responders.  The telecommunicator advised the caller what to do prior to the officer's arrival because she knew the process.  When the officer requested the entry into NCIC and that an AMBER Alert be issued, the telecommunicator knew exactly what had to be done.

One part of this story that can make a difference between life and death is to educate the community about NetSmartz (www.netsmartz.org).  This is an Internet safety resource from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America that uses the latest technology to create high-impace educational activities for kids of any age group.  The goal of NetSmartz is to extend the safety awareness of children and empower them to make responsible decisions online and in real life.

A missing child is a paren't worst nightmare.  When their child is missing, they expect public safety responders to do everything they can to locate their child.  Are you and your agency prepared to do everything you can to help that parent find their missing child?

Every 9-1-1 center should have policies and procedures in place on how to handle these types of calls.  In addition, every staff member should be trained on these policies and procedures.  Every call that is received about a missing child should be checked for quality assurance.  Contact information should be readily available to every telecommunicator.

Adopting APCO ANS 1.101.2-2010 as the minimum standard for your agency in handling these types of calls is a good start to implementing and creating a response toolbox.

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