- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 (UPI) — This is the third part of a three-part series examining the abuse of children in the United States and is being repeated as a tie-in with the story of child abuse in Newark, N.J.

United Press International found that despite the periodic eruption into public consciousness of high-profile cases, the issue has failed to resonate with the general public or government officials in any consistent way.

Federal authorities say they don't have a handle on how many children are missing in the United States. Law enforcement is too slow in reporting missing children to national crime databases, the classification of missing or runaway children in state computers is inconsistent, and records are purged when the children turn 18 even if they haven't been located.

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Federal and state officials have no idea how many children are missing because they have not perfected reporting techniques that track the numbers of youngsters who have been abducted or have run away, a senior Bush administration official told United Press International.

The lack of accurate, up-to-date data is a result of law enforcement often waiting too long before taking a report from parents or other family members; poor classification of the missing or runaways in state clearinghouse computers; and the fact that federal authorities purge many missing children out of the federal missing people database once they reach age 18, whether they have been located or not.

The most recent figures — from 1999 — show that at that time, more than 750,000 children meeting law enforcement's definition of missing or runaway had yet to be found.

J. Robert Flores, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said the federal and state databases used to track children who have been kidnapped or who are runaways have no current information that would give authorities a clear picture of the severity of the problem.

"Most of our data takes several years to come in," Flores said. "Every week there is a child missing. Every week there's a … kidnapping done, probably more than one a week. That's what we average in our country."

But officials in the Justice Department and child advocates say those estimates are vague.

Without accurate information on where children have gone missing or have runaway, federal officials cannot determine where resources should be routed to help stem the problem.

One problem, officials from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say, is local law enforcement agencies fail to report missing children in a timely fashion to the National Crime Information Center though the Missing Kids Child Search Assistance Act mandates immediate reporting.

The NCIC, a computerized database that lists fugitives, missing people and stolen property, links some 16,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

John Rabun, vice president and chief operating officer of the National Center, said agencies often wait too long before entering the information after taking the report from parents or other family members.

"Some don't report at all. Some wait 24 to 48 hours before entering it," said Rabun. "That's too long."

He said he supports reporting to NCIC as soon as a child is found to be missing.

Rabun pointed to the case of 12-year-old Polly Klaas who in 1993 was kidnapped from a slumber party in her bedroom. Rabun said a pair of deputies may have found Polly had her information been entered into the NCIC earlier. They had stopped her killer, Richard Allen Davis, in a wooded area after his car became stuck in the mud. The officers knew that Davis was a registered sex offender but not that Polly was missing.

Rabun said a bill introduced earlier this month by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. and Susan Collins, D-Maine, would require police officers to report missing and runaway children to the NCIC database within 2 hours. Delays in entering missing children reports into the NCIC database leads to delays in the investigation critical to ensuring a safe return. The bill estimates that in 74 percent of abduction homicide cases, the child is dead within the first three hours and 91 percent are killed within 24 hours.

The Dodd-Collins bill would also stop local agencies from removing the names of missing children from the NCIC network when they reach legal age. Rabun believes expunging the records is premature and clears a case from the files that has not been solved.

"If skeletal remains turn up, there is no information because it's been purged from the system," Rabun said.

Recently the White House has focused its attention on missing and exploited children with a daylong conference in early October, and a roundtable discussion with experts in the field at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.

The White House summit followed a summer that saw numerous high-profile child kidnappings and killings play out on 24-hour news channels and in newspapers.

"It was really difficult. At our house — we've got children," Flores said. "I've got friends with children. The attorney general is a grandfather. You start looking at your children and you start wondering, is the bogeyman going to get them?"

The White House canceled its interview with UPI on the issue, citing its need to focus on the then-upcoming midterm elections. Since then, officials have not been available to talk.

On hand for Bush's child protection summit were the parents of 12-year-old Elizabeth Smart, a Utah resident. Smart was kidnapped from the bedroom of her Salt Lake City home in June and has never been found. The spotlight also was on Danielle van Dam who was found murdered in February in California after being taken from her home. And Samantha Runnion was also taken from in front of her Stanton, Calif., home on July 15 and found dead a day later on a road some 50 miles away.

Flores said it can take months for state court records on troubled, runaway or missing children to reach the federal government.

The agency relies heavily on NISMART — the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children — a study mandated by the Missing Children's Assistance Act, that provides annual estimates of the number of missing children. The law requires OJJDP to conduct periodic studies to determine the number of U.S. children missing and the number recovered during a given year.

NISMART-2, the second study of its kind, which was released earlier this month, provides the number of children reported missing or as runaways during 1999.

It estimates that 1.3 million children met the criteria for being classified as reported missing by their caretakers. Among those children, an estimated 797,500 were found to have not returned and help was sought from police or agencies in locating the youngster.

"We have not made a significant investment in the collection of that data that we perhaps ought to," Flores said. "Not just technology. Some communities don't have an infrastructure, really. They are still kind of backward in how they collect data."

The U.S. Department of Justice's Child Protection Division has a $56.6 million budget for 2002, which includes $8.4 million for child abuse investigation and prosecution, $23 million for missing and exploited children's programs and $2.3 million for judicial child abuse training. The White House is seeking a $6 million increase in fiscal year 2003 for the Internet Crimes Against Children portion of the Missing and Exploited Children's Programs appropriation, boosting the spending package to $61.7 million.

Flores also pointed to problems with the collection of data from state clearinghouses, another tool used to track the numbers of missing and runaway children. Individual states have programs that assist parents in recovering their missing children, but their scope and how they accomplish their mission varies. Programs in some states such as Mississippi and Missouri are managed by the highway patrol. In Massachusetts, the state police oversees the program, and in Nevada, it is overseen by the Office of the Attorney General. Louisiana's program is administered by its Department of Social Services.

Where the clearinghouse for those missing runs into its most serious snags is in reporting to federal law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an arm of the Justice Department.

Some distribute photos statewide, while others may go so far as to enter the child into the FBI's National Crime Information Missing Person File. And they are also responsible for gathering and reporting data on the numbers of missing children in their state, classifying them as runaways, kidnappings or as parental abductions.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has become a touchstone for parents and relatives for children who have been abducted or who have runaway from home. Pictures are distributed on its Web site and attention is focuses on cases that may otherwise be forgotten.

The center receives about 60 percent of its funding from the Justice Department but states, with the exception of Florida, are not legally required to forward information on its missing children for inclusion in its database.

Another problem in tracking missing children is how they are classified in state clearinghouse databases. Some officials call the categories vague and confusing, with the names of offenses varying from state-to-state.

For example, Alaska calls a child taken by a non-custodial parent "parental interference," while in Maryland it is considered "parental abduction." The clearinghouse in Hawaii does not keep statistics at all as officials there said it would be unlikely that a kidnapper would be able to remove a child from the islands.

"It's a challenge. But that's one of the reasons why we invest in a study like NISMART. We want to get a very accurate picture where we will have researchers get information about the definitions that are used," Flores said. "They will code the information provided by the states. They will do all that work, which in essence allows us to figure out whether we are talking about a stereotypical kidnapping or whether we are talking about a parental kidnapping. I would imagine in some states it is perfectly acceptable to report it as a kidnapping period."

Flores believes one method is to track at-risk children through school attendance. When he took the job at OJJDP, he said he was surprised to learn child protection workers don't check on the welfare of a child solely on the bases of truancy.

"When a child 5 or 6 (years old) doesn't go to school for 10 or 20 days, it's a major indication of risk," Flores said.

OJJDP is working in conjunction with the child protection division in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, Flores said, to develop strategies to identify early children early who may be at risk for running away or those who may be abused.

Flores said the administration is committed to working out the problems. He said he was thrilled with the attention the White House had placed on the issue with the recent summit, but stopped short of saying the Bush team was formulating a national strategy to address it.

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