Keeping kids safe

Imagine the unimaginable: Your child, expected home hours ago has not yet arrived. No phone call, no text message, no word from friends – absolutely nothing. Panic starts to flood over as you realize your child could be in danger or missing.

Although this is an issue a lot of parents may not think about, it hits close to home in Virginia, which reports more cases of missing children annually than every state but one (despite being the 12th most populous state in the country).

More than 340 children were reported missing just last year in Virginia. During the past two years in Henrico, 24 children have been reported as missing, with the majority of them between the ages of 14-17.

Many of these children may be deemed runaways because parents or guardians may lack the physical evidence that would suggest something else.

In the recent Henrico cases, most of the missing children did run away, according to Henrico Police Detective Joe Mitchell.

“They’re out with a friend, running late, they’re not coming home, etc., and then the police get called,” Mitchell said. “Often times the child comes home an hour after the officer leaves, though there are some chronic cases. But it’s highly unusual to get a child that is gone under suspicious circumstances.”

A child is considered missing when, from the caretaker’s perspective, the child experienced a qualifying episode in which his or her whereabouts were unknown to the primary caretaker, according to Virginia state law. The caretaker must have been alarmed for at least an hour and must have tried to locate the child.

After a child is reported missing, the officer enters his or her name into a clearinghouse for missing children that can be accessed by police and other agencies throughout the country. Locally, if the child attends Henrico County Public Schools, the case also is assigned to that school’s resource officer.

If a child reported as missing is still missing at the age of 18, he or she will be held in the system as a missing person until found, especially if there are suspicious circumstances.

“If they’re missing under suspicious circumstances we have to always at least be looking for them to make sure no harm is done to them,” said Mitchell. “If they get found, they’re just removed from the system. Sometimes we have a child, maybe 16 or 17 years old, that runs away and goes to live with a different parent in a different state, and we know they’re alive. Those children are not going to remain in the system.”

A proactive approach
Lacking specific physical evidence that a missing child younger than 18 was taken against his or her will, the assumption often becomes that the child has run away. Often times, there is no such physical evidence.

That’s one reason why Robert Smith, a minister and executive affiliate of ChildShield USA in Henrico, pushes for preventative measures.

ChildShield’s primary goal is to prevent and reduce the numbers of lost, abducted and runaway children in America. The company offers victims’ parents and law enforcement agencies a “one stop, one call source” for immediate assistance in distributing information that is vital to the recovery effort, according to Smith.

Enrollment costs $15 a month for all children in the family and is valid until the children turn 24. The company provides education and awareness to parents and children alike as a proactive way to defend against safety issues. It also creates a package with videotapes and personal data for each child, which is updated every two years. If an
enrolled child is missing, the company assigns a private investigator to the case, sends photo flyers to police and other agencies across the country and puts up a $50,000 reward. Every missing child enrolled in the program has been recovered safely, Smith said.

It’s important to be aware that times have changed, Smith said, and people are more technologically savvy and educated. Young people often put themselves out into an online world of potential danger, and older methods of finding missing children, such as ID fingerprint cards, aren’t going to prevent a child from going anywhere, he said.

“We’re required to have car insurance, we have health insurance, home insurance, etc., so why not insure your child?” he said. “You can’t replace the child, but you can replace a car or house or other aesthetically valued thing.”

Why is Virginia ranked so high on the missing-children list? A lack of awareness, according to Smith.

“I come and speak to the kids about being safe through Henrico schools,” said Smith. “This month and next month the library has me speaking to people about the problem and being safe. Most people are just unaware there is a problem, and the biggest part of what I do is education to both parents and children.”

The Henrico Police have school PEAK (Police, Educators and Kids) officers read books to younger children about safety and programs in which they discuss stranger danger, date rape, peer pressure and running away to inform the youngsters about potential problems.

Smith understands that there is a problem and there also is a solution – but not one that will resonate with people who continually tell themselves, “This isn’t going to happen to my child.”

He knows this all too well from a personal experience.

His youngest son, Marcus Smith, was missing after a tornado hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011, leaving his family frantic. He was later found deceased.

“If your child goes missing, you will give up everything you have to get your child back,” said Smith, on the verge of tears. “My son’s body went missing and we didn’t find him until five days later. When we got to his apartment it didn’t look real; it looked like a movie scene. When we found him, he was buried beneath trees and shrubs, and I had to go back and identify him.

“From that experience take my word, $15 a month is nothing because you will give up everything you have to find your child. It’s about making sure people are educated and having them realize that it does happen and can happen.”

A network of support
A nationwide network of missing-child clearinghouses work closely together with the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children (NCMEC) and various agencies to provide a comprehensive approach to child protection. The focus points of the clearinghouses are networking, information dissemination, training development and delivery, data collection and provision of technical assistance in cases of missing and sexually exploited children.

The Clearinghouse of Virginia was formed in 1983 and operates as Virginia’s center for missing children administered through the Virginia Department of State Police. It is linked to all Virginia law enforcement agencies, the FBI, all U.S. police agencies through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and all children’s clearinghouses. NCMEC handles the most serious cases in which the child is at greatest risk.

Henrico police officers work closely with NCMEC, receiving notification any time a missing child case involves the county and serving as an additional resource if a child is missing.

NCMEC officials assist local police by printing out flyers with a missing child’s information and pictures, which are posted in high volume areas, such as local Walmart or Target stores.

One of the most recognized services for missing children is the Amber Alert Program, which is a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement and transportation agencies and media to send out urgent bulletins in serious child-abduction cases.

Law enforcement officials notify the NCMEC when an Amber Alert is released for a specific geographical area. Once NCMEC validates the Amber Alert, it is entered into a secure system and transmitted to authorized secondary distributors.

In most cases an Emergency Alert System is used to air a description of the child on radio and TV in hopes of making the community aware right away and helping in the recovery of the child. Such an alert is only issued when law enforcement agencies believe an abduction has occurred; the child is 17 years or younger and is in imminent danger;
and there is enough descriptive information about the victim available. Less than one percent of the lost, missing or runaway child cases in America actually qualify to use the system.

Despite police efforts in Virginia, last year one of every five children reported as missing was not found. In the 12th most populous state in the nation, that’s a number that provides plenty of incentive for officials and others, such as Smith, who are seeking to lower it.
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