By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
December 20, 2005
The Justice Department this week said it also has violated the 15-year-old act of Congress and promised to begin publicly releasing an annual summary of missing-children cases. The number of cases reported to the FBI by police has increased significantly in recent months, at least partly as a result of the new police policies.
"We are now making more timely and accurate reporting," said Memphis, Tenn., Police Department spokesman Vince Higgins. "We started doing this in June. It's safer for the kids."
Police in Shreveport, La., said they also were surprised to learn that they must immediately enter the names of all children missing from their jurisdiction into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. This national computer network has been credited with helping to recover hundreds of missing children each year.
"We want to jump on this bandwagon. I'm really glad this was brought to our attention," said Shreveport Assistant Chief Mike VanSant. "We will have a completely new missing-persons policy. We already are reporting every child now, I promise."
Dozens of police departments this year were found in violation of the National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990 because they ignore or delay meeting its reporting requirements, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of case files at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.
That law also has been overlooked by the Justice Department, charged by Congress to publish annual audits of the number of missing youths reported to the FBI. The federal government has never made such an accounting.
"We realize now that we haven't always followed the proper channels," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said. "This has been corrected. Our goal is to get the 2005 numbers out before the end of January. They will not only be reported to Congress but we will also post them on our Web site."
Kolko said the FBI will report the number, race, sex and age of missing children in cases it has received, but not where the children disappeared. He said the FBI does not want to embarrass police departments that are failing to report missing children.
"We will work to encourage them and to train them on the proper procedures," Kolko said.
The Scripps Howard study examined National Center for Missing and Exploited Children records of 37,665 children who disappeared from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2004. The study calculated percentages in every major city of missing children who had not been reported to the FBI.
The worst was Norfolk, Va., home of the world's largest naval base, where 61 percent of missing juveniles had not been reported to federal or state authorities. Navy officials blamed "procedural errors" and issued new orders reminding military police worldwide that they must report any child who goes missing from Navy facilities.
"It's difficult to conclude that ignorance of the law was a factor in every case. But it no doubt played some part," said Navy spokesman Ed Buice.
Detroit police ordered a rewording of the city's missing-person policy to clearly reflect mandatory reporting requirements after 37 percent of Detroit's missing children were not found in the FBI database. Two of the unreported youths - Bryona Williams and Erica Johnson, both 15 - were later found dead, both victims of rape and homicide.
Detroit's assistant police chief, Walter Martin, said he didn't know that all children must be immediately reported to the FBI. "This is an eye-opener," he said.
Scripps Howard released its first study of the National Center's files on May 10, part of a series of articles describing lapses in the way America looks for its missing children.
The number of missing-children cases reported by police has risen in recent months, according to confidential FBI files obtained by Scripps Howard. Police reported 65,006 active missing-children cases in October, more than a 5 percent increase since the beginning of the year. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have significantly increased the number of children they are seeking.
Dozens of municipal areas also are showing improvements. Police in Memphis, for example, reported the names of 174 children to the FBI in October, more than a 20 percent increase over last year, when it reported an average of 142 children a month.
"We were not reporting runaways immediately. Now we are," said Higgins. "Before, we wouldn't file a report until 24 to 36 hours later. Now we are doing it, usually within a couple of hours. After all, even if they are willing runaways, they can fall into unsafe situations."
But not all police departments found in violation of federal reporting standards are making immediate changes.
The Honolulu Police Department last year reported only 10 missing children to the FBI, even though it also made 2,791 arrests of runaway children. Chief Boisse Correa said the discrepancy resulted from Honolulu's "practice of not counting runaways as missing persons."
But Correa in April promised to conduct a policy review in light of the findings of Scripps Howard's study. This month, however, Hawaiian police announced that they won't change their procedures anytime soon.
"We are going to stay the course for now," said Capt. Frank Fujii. "We are trying to link our Juvenile Justice Information System with the FBI's computer network. That's going to take some doing. But after that's done, then they (missing children) will be input automatically."
The New York City Police Department also falls well short of federal standards. Scripps Howard in May convinced the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services to release computer files showing that only 13 percent of the time does NYPD report missing children within 24 hours. Delays of two weeks or more are common.
"Can we do better? Yes," New York Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said then.
But by October, New York was still averaging only about 400 missing-children reports a month, less than half the number of children regularly reported by police in Chicago and Los Angeles. New York has double the juvenile population of the other cities.
"This is going to take some more research," New York police spokesman Detective Kevin Czartoryski said last week.
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