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Cover Story

Snatched! Rescuing Stolen Kids

Law enforcement agencies are finding new ways to cope with the heinous crime of child abduction.

October 01, 2002  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Department of Justice statistics reveal that there has been no marked increase in the number of child abductions in the United States since the Nixon administration. But you wouldn't know it from the news coverage this summer. To anyone casually tuning into American TV or perusing a major U.S. newspaper, it looked like the country had been beset by an epidemic of kidnapped children.

The truth is much more subtle. What really happened this summer was a combination of a slow news cycle and joint efforts by police and broadcasters to spread the word about snatched kids.

However, just because there's been no statistical evidence of a great increase in the number of child abductions, it doesn't mean that the crime isn't happening. It is. And you need to be ready to cope with it.

According to the chiefs of departments involved in the highest profile cases, there are a few basic procedures you can follow to ensure the most effective search for a kidnapped child. They advise you to have a plan for handling a child abduction case in your jurisdiction, to not be afraid to ask for assistance from both other law enforcement and civilian agencies, and to be ready for the media and its insatiable appetite for any new developments.

John Brook, senior investigator with the New York State Police Child Abuse and Exploitation Unit, says the key to dealing with stranger abductions of children is to, "set aside egos and turf issues and work together. Utilize all the resources, including surrounding agencies as well as those offered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children."

San Diego Stories

While child abductions are not a common criminal problem for the average department, they can happen, and in the San Diego area this summer, they happened in multiples.

Chief David Bejarano of the San Diego Police Department has no explanation for why the San Diego area has become the child abduction center of the United States. But he believes things will go back to normal soon. In the past, "America's Finest City" saw a child abduction case every five or 10 years, but in the past two months Bejarano's department has responded to three high-profile cases: a 7-year-old child (Danielle Van Dam) was murdered, a 2-year-old (Jahi Turner) is still missing, and a 7-month-old baby was safely returned to his parents.

"We are very sensitive to the issues involving child abduction cases," Bejarano says. "Every case is treated with the highest priority from the time the call is received."

Under San Diego PD procedures, child abduction cases are considered priority calls from the communications unit and an officer and a supervisor are immediately dispatched. Once a case is  confirmed, a fax report is sent to a central location and then sent to local media. Bejarano, while not discounting the importance of television, says radio stations are a priority. "People are more likely to be listening to the radio while driving through the city," he explains.

Time is critical in abductions. According to a report by the Washington attorney general and the U.S. Department of Justice, the vast majority (74 percent) of abducted children who are murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction.

Bejarano says San Diego PD treats every abduction case as a homicide scene and, in addition to his officers, he immediately brings in a group of volunteers who are involved in the department's critical incident management unit. While these volunteers are not involved in enforcement activities, they are trained to operate the command post, do searches, and assist with traffic.

The San Diego PD also issues an Amber alert for any abducted child case. Amber alerts consist of broadcast bulletins that are sent out to radio and television stations, and are sometimes displayed on highway information signs.

By all indications, the Amber alert system appears to be a success. But with success can also come detractors. Critics say the public can become immune to the urgency of the alerts, if they are used too often. They also fear a "copy cat" syndrome, in which a suspect would attempt an abduction just to have the deed noted on television and radio.

Bejarano admits that copy-cats are a concern for police when issuing an Amber alert, but the benefits of using Amber outweigh any fears of eliciting copy-cat crimes. "[Copy-cat syndrome] would be a concern as to why we could explain why so many abductions occurred back to back. But there is a lot more to benefit from getting information out to the community regarding a missing juvenile."

Salt Lake City

Chief Charles Dinse of the Salt Lake City Police Department supports the Rachael alert system of Utah, which is modeled after the Amber system. After Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at gunpoint from the bedroom of her house in Salt Lake City in June, Salt Lake City became the first department in the state to use the system. While it did not help in his investigation, Chief Dinse said that when a department has a description of a vehicle or a suspect, Rachael could be of greater assistance.

In addition to sending out a Rachael Alert in the Smart case, Salt Lake City PD was quick to enlist the aid of the FBI's rapid start system, which Dinse characterizes as "helpful, but improvements needed to be made." He adds that the resources of the FBI became an important asset to his investigation, explaining that Salt Lake City detectives were able to use the Bureau's investigators, technology, and expertise.

And the FBI has increasing expertise in the field. In 1998, federal legislation mandated the creation of the Morgan P. Hardiman Child Abduction and Serial murder Investigative Resources Center (CASMIRC), which was designed to provide investigative support to local agencies through the coordination and provision of federal law enforcement resources. The Center supplies training and application of other multidisciplinary expertise to assist federal, state, and local authorities in matters involving child abductions, mysterious disappearances of children, child homicide, and serial murder across the country.

The Center's rapid response unit supplies local agencies with the most current expertise available, immediate operations assistance, and onsite investigative support through technical and forensic resource coordination. Upon notification from a local department, CASMIRC's experts coordinate an immediate response to the site.

Elizabeth Smart was taken from her Salt Lake City home in June and is still missing.

Salt Lake City PD is one of many local agencies that has benefited from this federal assistance. It is available to any department upon request.

With Smart still missing, Dinse says Salt Lake PD has had to be prepared not only to handle the investigation, but to deal with constant media inquiries. "If a case goes on for any length of time, you have to plan to manage a tremendous amount of information and be prepared to man phones 24 hours a day," he explains.

Early on in the case, Dinse added officers to his public information unit. He needed them. Initially the department was holding two press briefings a day. Now, months after Smart's abduction, briefings are held only when new information becomes available.

And while Dinse embraced an open policy for the media, he often became frustrated by leaks that were getting out of his department. "Be prepared. Leaks will happen," he warns.


Since the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey and the subsequent constant national media attention, the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department has standardized its response to a child abduction, and each officer has a checklist.

When a child abduction is suspected,  the responding officer goes down the list. He or she must verify the accuracy of the report, identify the last location where the victim was seen, secure the site as a crime scene, obtain a detailed description of the victim, notify a supervisor, find out what has been done to locate the child, determine when the victim was last seen, request additional units, conduct a complete and thorough search of the immediate area, locate any witnesses, request a search and rescue dog, and notify the FBI.

According to Det. Sgt. Kurt Weiler of the Boulder PD, the department also uses a system, provided by the non-profit group A Child is Missing, that allows dispatchers to send out a recorded message to all phones in the area where the child is reported missing. The Amber Alert is also in effect in Colorado.

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