New methods help find missing kids/Police coordination, media, Internet help locate abducted children

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Normal New methods help find missing kids/Police coordination, media, Internet help locate abducted children

Post by Wrapitup on Sat Nov 19, 2011 10:53 pm

by Lisa Halverstadt - Nov. 19, 2011 09:21 PM
The Arizona Republic

Missing child cases have evolved from photos on milk cartons to a more instant, sprawling and connected web of information that increases the likelihood of finding children alive.

Authorities credit greater success to a more immediate police response, increased community awareness and the ability of media outlets to get the word out.

Nearly 20 years ago, information was slow to trickle out when a bearded stranger abducted Polly Klaas from a slumber party.

There was no Amber Alert. The 24-hour news cycle and the Internet were in their infancy. California authorities didn't immediately notify the media or ensure that officers statewide knew of the 12-year-old's abduction. Police found the girl's body two months later.

Times change. A photo of Glendale kindergartner Jhessye Shockley was shown on Internet news sites and on TV news broadcasts on Oct. 11, the night she was reported missing. Dozens of officers searched for the 5-year-old within hours of her mother's 911 call. An Amber Alert followed, and strangers created Facebook pages and passed out fliers.

That type of broad and rapid response matters, said Bob Lowery of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Washington, D.C.

"We're finding more children today than we ever have," Lowery said.

In 1990, 62 percent of children reported missing were recovered, according to the center. Last year, the center reported a 97.5 percent recovery rate.

Despite gains, there are no guarantees. Jhessye has been missing 41 days.

The public has always paid attention to missing children. But in today's world they are more intensely involved, tugged by the ever-present photo of Jhessye, with her bright smile and braided pigtails. Many closely follow her case, much as they did with Baby Gabriel Johnson of Tempe in late 2009 or Caylee Anthony, who went missing in 2008 and was later found dead in Florida.

"You become sort of attached to them, especially if they're adorable. Then you become concerned," said Frederick Koenig, a retired social-psychology professor from Tulane University. "You have a relationship. You have somebody in your living room who's in trouble."

Faster police response

Experience has taught police that swift action and communication can be lifesaving.

Marc Klaas, Polly's father, thinks today's techniques and partnerships could have saved his daughter.

The man who would later be convicted of Polly's murder drove his white Ford Pinto into a ditch about 15 miles from the girl's home in Petaluma, Calif., less than two hours after the kidnapping.

Unaware of the abduction, two deputies helped Richard Allen Davis.

Klaas now believes Polly may have been alive, locked in Davis' trunk, as he talked to the deputies. They watched Davis drive away.

"That would never happen today," Klaas said.

Dozens of officers knocked on doors and stopped cars in Jhessye's neighborhood near 45th and Glendale avenues in the days after she was reported missing. They e-mailed a photo to media outlets and handed out fliers.

Police also entered information about Jhessye's disappearance into a national police database and likely used others to background friends and family.

A Valley-wide Child Abduction Response Team and the FBI quickly came to Glendale to assist.

Such an immediate response didn't happen a decade ago, said Jim Walters, a consultant with the U.S. Department of Justice who helps train police in missing-child investigations.

Previously, worried parents often waited hours to call police as they searched for the child themselves. Once officers arrived, working through chains of police command sometimes kept them from immediately searching the neighborhood. Some agencies waited until a child had been missing for a specific length of time.

That lag increased the chances an abducted child would be found dead, said Walters, who spent years investigating child abductions in California.

Police also were hesitant to call reporters. In the past, media outlets may have only heard about a child's disappearance over police scanners in their newsrooms.

Federal laws passed in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped usher in change. They required police to input information about missing children into databases available to officers across the country within two hours of an initial report and led to the creation of the National Center, which assists police with missing-child investigations.

The Amber Alert system, coordinated by individual states, emerged in the last decade in Arizona. Information about an abducted child goes on highway signs and to lottery-ticket sites, and the media broadcasts information.

Expanding the reach

Authorities can now use the media to get information out about a missing child almost instantly, a crucial tool when the situation appears more dire with each passing minute.

Tips from radio listeners and television viewers, who get news updates 24 hours a day, can help authorities find the child or the abductor within hours or minutes, said William Andersen, a Phoenix missing-persons detective.

"They're going to encounter this person before law enforcement," the detective said. "I'm absolutely beholden to the media and the public's attention."

Local media attention went national within days after Jhessye disappearance. Her family appeared on national cable-TV networks such as CNN and MSNBC. The Glendale girl was briefly mentioned on "America's Most Wanted."

The news led to reported sightings from Arizona Mills mall in Tempe to an Ohio Walmart.

Nielsen ratings for Nancy Grace's Headline News show, which often focuses on missing children, spiked as the legal analyst covered Caylee Anthony's disappearance and the trial for the girl's mother. About 5 million watched as a Florida jury read its verdict, finding Casey Anthony not guilty in her daughter's death.

Media coverage came more slowly when 13-year-old Myron Traylor went missing on a July afternoon in 1988. He had stopped by a south Phoenix restaurant for a cherry cola. The first newspaper stories about the south Phoenix football player's disappearance came three days later. "Unsolved Mysteries" and "America's Most Wanted" have since featured Myron's case.

His aunt, Sandra Traylor, still gets calls each time the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children uses his poster.

"Miracles happen. I still hope that we find him one day," Traylor, said. "It's more heavy on the other side, that he's not alive, but we still keep praying."

Myron would be 37.

More public involvement

The faces of innocent children in trouble have always inspired heartbreak. But the Internet and increased news coverage have given strangers, near and far, a way to weigh in.

Years ago, people ached for the families of children such as Etan Patz, a 6-year-old who disappeared in 1979 and became the first missing youngster to be featured on a milk carton, a technique for spreading the word that was widely used in the 1980s.

In Myron's case, members of the nearby Southminster Presbyterian Church passed out fliers, scoured the boy's neighborhood and searched for him in the desert.

But the audience to the tragedies then were smaller.

Today, missing-child cases are talked about, analyzed and given the expert treatment, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University.

"It becomes a serialized drama, like a soap opera," Thompson said. "You watch it every day."

Viewers, no matter how skeptical, want to help.

At least 17 Facebook groups have sprouted to support Jhessye's family and distribute fliers with photos of the Glendale girl. Strangers stood on street corners waving signs with her picture.

On Web forums, some have questioned whether Jhessye really is missing, while others have passed along prayers or offered to pass out fliers.

"The point is, yes, people are cynical, yes, people are hardened, but they still want to help," said Tricia Arrington Griffith, co-owner of Websleuths.com, an online forum that often features missing-child cases.

Everyone has something to offer, from prayers to theories on what happened.

Arrington Griffith said that intensity stems from the instinct to protect children. "You see children in need of something and you will drop what you're doing and try to help."

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