Few parents have had experience working with law enforcement agencies. Perhaps you have had contact previously with law enforcement as a result of a traffic ticket or an accident. If so, you probably saw law enforcement as the enforcer of rules that had been broken -- not as a lifeline.
But when your child is missing, you and law enforcement become partners pursuing a common goal -- finding your lost or abducted child. As partners, you need to establish a relationship that is based on mutual respect, trust, and honesty. As partners, however, you do not have to agree on every detail. This chapter provides insight into the relationship you are entering into with law enforcement -- what you can expect from the investigation, what types of questions you are likely to be asked, and what situations you and your family are likely to encounter in the process.
Your Partnership With Law Enforcement
Most people do not believe that they will be victims of crime -- or that their children will be victimized. But if a young member of your family becomes a victim, you will likely wonder what law enforcement expects of you and what you can expect of law enforcement. Understanding these expectations will deepen your knowledge of law enforcement's role, establish a sound basis for your relationship with the agencies and organizations that are there to help, and assist you in handling this all-too-sudden change in circumstances.
Make sure law enforcement understands that your child is in danger and that his or her absence is likely to be involuntary. If your child is 10 years old or younger, it will not be hard to show that your child is in danger. However, if your child is older than 10, it is important to let law enforcement know that your child's absence is not normal behavior and that you would be surprised if your child had disappeared voluntarily.
Check to see if any money, clothing (other than what your child was wearing), or other personal items are missing. If nothing else is missing, be sure law enforcement is aware of this.
Let law enforcement know how your child is doing in school and if your child has quarreled recently with you or a friend. If you can establish that there is nothing to indicate that your child ran away, it will expedite law enforcement's classification of your child as abducted or endangered.
Be honest, complete, and forthcoming in your statements and answers to law enforcement. Fully disclose all recent activities of and conversations with your child. What may seem insignificant to you may be important to an investigator.
Be prepared for hard, repetitious questions from investigators. As difficult as it may be, try not to respond in a hostile manner to questions that seem personal or offensive. The fact is that investigators must ask difficult and sensitive questions if they are to do their jobs effectively.
Don't feel guilty about relaying suspicions concerning someone you know. It is not often that a total stranger takes a child. You may not want to believe that it is someone that you know, but keep an open mind and consider all the possibilities. Above all else, trust your feelings, instincts, and gut reactions and share them with law enforcement so they can be checked out.
Do everything possible to get you and your family removed from the suspect list. As painful as it may be, accept the fact that a large number of children are harmed by members of their own families, and therefore you and your family will be considered suspects until you are cleared. To help law enforcement move on to other suspects, volunteer early to take a polygraph test. Insist that both parents be tested at the same time by different interviewers, or one after another. This will help to deflect media speculation that one of you was involved in the disappearance.
Insist that everyone close to your child be interviewed. Encourage everyone -- including family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, and coaches -- to cooperate in the investigatory process. Although polygraph testing is voluntary, refusal to take a polygraph can cause law enforcement to spend time trying to eliminate an individual from the suspect list through other means and, as a result, take valuable time away from finding the real suspect.
Leave the interviewing of your other children to law enforcement. Do not question your children yourself. Especially with younger children, insist that a law enforcement officer who is trained to interview children conduct the questioning. Many law enforcement agencies have a child abuse unit with officers who are specially trained to work with children.
You can also ask to have a child advocate sit in on the interview with your child. Child advocates are specially trained volunteers who provide assistance and support to children involved in the legal process. Child advocates are normally housed in the district attorney's office, the court, or the law enforcement agency. Ask law enforcement for information about your local child advocate office. If your child is very young, you may be asked to sit in on the interview. Don't be alarmed, however, if law enforcement prefers to interview your children alone.
Be prepared for constant law enforcement presence in your home. For the protection of you and your family, an officer may be assigned to your home on a 24-hour basis. Although this presence may feel intrusive, welcome the officer, and recognize that this person is there to answer calls and take leads, protect you and other members of your family from potential harm, and provide support. If your law enforcement agency is small, however, it may not have the resources to place an officer in your home 24 hours a day. In those circumstances, it is still reasonable for you to ask for added law enforcement protection in your home.
Talk regularly with your primary law enforcement contact. The officer who responded initially to your call for help may not be your permanent family contact. If there is a good chance that your child has run away, for example, your primary law enforcement contact may work in the missing persons unit. If it is suspected that force was used to abduct your child, your case may be handled by a detective from homicide. Find out who your primary law enforcement contact is and get his or her phone and beeper numbers. Make sure that you find out the name of the backup person to call when your primary law enforcement contact is not available.
Pick a time of day for your contact to call you with information. But realize that there will be days when your investigator has nothing to report. Also, designate one person to serve as the primary law enforcement contact for the family. If your investigator is bombarded with telephone calls from family members and friends, valuable time will be taken away from the investigation.
Make sure investigators know that you expect to hear about significant developments in the case from them, not from the media. The flip side of this is that you must honor law enforcement's request not to disclose some pieces of information to the media. Understand, however, that law enforcement may not be able to tell you everything about the case because full disclosure might jeopardize the investigation.
Satisfy yourself that law enforcement is handling your child's case properly. All of the agencies involved in the investigation should be cooperating with one another in pursuit of one goal -- finding your missing child and getting the predator off the street. The checklist Working With Law Enforcement lists the most important steps that law enforcement can take to find your missing child. The more you understand the investigatory process, the better able you will be to ask questions about it.
However, you should be aware that most law enforcement officers do not have firsthand experience working on a missing child case. If your primary contact cannot answer a question, find out who can. Also, if you feel that your child's disappearance has been classified inappropriately, ask to speak to the officer's supervisor or to someone else who may have more experience in these types of cases. Don't take no for an answer if you feel strongly that something else needs to be done.
Finally, learn about the services that are available from NCMEC, from your State missing children's clearinghouse, and from the television show America's Most Wanted. See the Additional Resources section at the end of this Guide for addresses, phone numbers, and brief descriptions of some of the services that are available to you.
OJJDP Report: When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, May 1998