Thursday, May 12, 2005

Missing-children cases fumbled by police nationwide

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 in apparent violation of the National Child Search Assistance Act passed by Congress in 1990.

Seventeen of these unreported children are dead, 131 are still missing.
"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 last five years. "This is unjust. Detroit does not do its job when it comes to missing children."
Detroit officials concede they should have acted faster and are re-writing 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. We'll just never know for sure."
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 noncompliance (with federal law) is a death sentence for some children," he said.
"Police need to report every missing child," Walsh said. "Don't make judgment calls! Give every kid a chance to be found alive and brought home safe!"
Florida Rep. Mark Foley, a vocal advocate for missing children on Capitol Hill, said he was surprised with the results of the Scripps Howard study and agreed with Walsh.
"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. How can we allow this to happen?" 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 re-writing their missing-children policies following questions raised by the study.
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.
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 cases.
"We're glad this oversight was brought to our attention. We're trying to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Navy spokesman John Buice. The study found that 61 percent of missing children from Norfolk, Va., were not reported to local or federal authorities. Almost all of the improperly handled cases were of children living on the Norfolk Naval Station, the world's largest naval base.
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 time.
Reporting varies
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 to a 31 percent failure rate in New York City.
Among the cities that reported bizarre statistics is Honolulu.
The city's police department last year reported only 10 missing children to the FBI, but the city reported making 2,791 arrests of runaway children.
"The low number of reported missing children is due to the department's current practice of not counting runaways as missing persons," said Honolulu Police Chief Boisse Correa in a written statement.
Correa said his department "has chosen to review its reporting procedures for missing children and runaways" because of questions raised by Scripps Howard reporters.
Among the 17 dead children whose cases were not reported to the FBI database was Kahealani Indreginal, 11, whose disappearance in 2002 made front-page news throughout Hawaii. The case was solved locally, but Kahealani was never reported to the federal database.
Hawaiian officials concede they have been making a dangerous assumption that all their missing children will stay on the island. "We've been asking ourselves: What if we don't put a child into the FBI system and the child is found on the mainland?" Fujii said.
Urban turmoil
While none of the children in Norfolk turned up dead, there were four fatalities among the 76 cases reported from Detroit to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Twenty-eight of these children were not reported to the FBI, including homicide victims Bryona Williams and Erica Johnson, 15, whose partially nude body was discovered in an overgrown Detroit alley on Aug. 12, 2000, three days after her parents reported her missing.
"There was a breach in department policy regarding missing juvenile Erica Johnson," said Second Deputy Police Chief James Tate. "We could not locate any record that Erica had been correctly entered into NCIC. She should have been reported."
Detroit officials had more difficulties explaining the four-day delay in reporting Bryona's disappearance, claiming at first that it was "not necessarily" a violation of police policy.
Assistant Chief Walter Martin said he was unaware that federal law requires that all missing children be reported immediately to state and federal authorities. "To be honest, I didn't know that. This is an eye-opener," he said.
After discussing the issue with city attorneys, Tate and Martin said they had misunderstood the meaning of the department's written policy. "That policy is clumsily written and hard to decipher. We actually are working on re-writing it right now," Tate said.
Bryona's family welcomed the news. "That's wonderful," Whigham said. "Maybe this will give some other kids a chance to keep their lives."
Status quo
Most of the nation's other major police departments with large numbers of unreported missing-children cases defended their policies, saying there is no need for change.
The New York Police Department for many years has reported a dramatically lower number of missing children than comparable cities across the country. New York City reported to the FBI only 4,489 missing-children cases in 2004 compared to the Los Angeles Police Department's 9,362 cases, even though New York has more than twice Los Angeles' population.
"That's certainly a hell of a lot more cases than we have," said Police Lt. Eamon Deery, commander of the New York City Missing Persons Squad. "As far as I know, everything is on the up-and-up here."
The Scripps Howard study found that 150 of the 485 missing-child cases reported to the National Center over the last five years were not reported to the FBI. That failure rate, 31 percent, is more than triple the failure rate in Los Angeles.
Officials with the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services, which oversees reporting both to its own Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse and to the FBI, said they will conduct a statewide, department-by-department study to check for significant reporting delays.
"We leave it to each police department to report this information to us. We believe they take it seriously," said State Criminal Justice Services Director Chauncey Parker. "We rely upon each department to get this information as quickly as possible."
Battling departments
The Scripps Howard study was unable to determine why 552 missing children from the Chicago area were not found in the FBI database. The Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services sharply disagree over who is responsible for hundreds of unreported foster children.
Among these unreported runaways was Lorenzo Ashford, 17, of Bellwood, Ill., who in 2003 was fatally shot in the head while standing on the front porch of a crack house in Milwaukee, Wis.
"We see nothing in our files about him being a runaway. We do know he was a ward of the state of Illinois," said Milwaukee Police Capt. Tim Burkee. "I don't know what agency in Illinois should have listed him as missing."
Illinois welfare workers insist they scrupulously and immediately report their missing children to the police. "Our practice, categorically, is to immediately report to Chicago Police," said family-services spokeswoman Diane Jackson.
Police are just as adamant. "The short answer is there is no way in hell that it's us," said Chicago Police spokesman Pat Camden. "I know for a fact that when a child is reported to us, we put the child into our system."
The Scripps Howard study found that 2,058 missing Chicago children were reported to the National Center and 552 of these were not found in FBI files.
Divergent information
The Scripps Howard study found that very young children are much less likely to be reported missing than are older children and teenagers. In fact, 32 percent of missing infants were incorrectly reported, compared to only 10 percent of teenagers 16 or 17 years old.
Among the cases not reported to federal and state authorities was 2-year-old Taylor Berry, who was found drowned in a small lake near her grandmother's house in Midway, Ga., late last year after a massive two-day search.
"I'm not familiar with any regulation that it is mandatory that a child is supposed to be reported," said Keith Moran, chief deputy of the Liberty County Sheriff's Department.
"It was an investigative decision that we didn't need to move to NCIC at that time and so we didn't," Moran said. "Obviously our assumptions were right. We found her where we assumed she was."
The study also found that some racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to be correctly reported missing than others. Only 9 percent of white and Asian children were not reported to the FBI, compared to 17 percent of black children and 12 percent of Hispanic children.
"African-Americans tend to live in central cities with the most beleaguered police departments," said University of New Hampshire sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and author of two Justice Department studies on missing children.
U.S. Justice Department officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
Several law-enforcement officials expressed displeasure at the Justice Department's failure to alert them to their reporting failures.
"Nobody told us that we were not following this law," Fujii said in Honolulu.
"It's going to take some prodding to make sure that the Justice Department is following up on this," said Rep. Foley. "We are looking at putting some teeth into the laws to enforce our mandates. We are looking at every aspect of this issue."
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