The Justice Department for years has violated an act of Congress by refusing to reveal how many lost, runaway and kidnapped children have been reported to the FBI, a policy that has turned America’s missing youth into a state secret.
The FBI says such information is confidential.
Advocates for missing children complain that the government’s refusal to report the number of cases has allowed many police departments to escape public notice when they violate the reporting standards set by Congress in its landmark National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990.
Advocates urge swift reporting because young kidnapping victims often are slain in the first hours of their abduction. But several major law-enforcement agencies, including the New York City Police Department, typically wait four or five days before reporting missing children to federal and state authorities, and delays of two weeks are common.
Many other police departments, as a matter of policy, do not report missing children if they are runaways.
The 1990 law ordered that all children _ regardless of the reason they are missing _ must be “entered immediately” into state and federal police computer networks. These databases have been credited for the recovery of hundreds of children in recent years.
Congress also ordered the Justice Department to “publish an annual statistical summary” of missing-children cases received at the FBI’s National Crime Information Center to ensure that provisions of its law are followed. But the FBI considered these crime files to be the property of local law-enforcement agencies, and the Justice Department has never published the required accounting.
“Why didn’t they issue these reports? I’ve been asking that question for nearly 15 years and never got an answer,” said David Thelen, founder of the Committee for Missing Children, a Georgia-based advocacy group. “We can’t have the Justice Department, the top law-enforcement agency in the nation, ignoring a law like this. They should be held accountable.”
Thelen said that an annual federal accounting of missing-children reports would have forced many local police departments to do a better job. “That would have opened up a lot of scrutiny of the system,” he said.
Members of Congress say they are alarmed by the failure.
“This is critical. We are finding far too many cases that are going unreported,” said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.
“Obviously, this is something the Department of Justice needs to work on. Congress wanted the information in order to assemble a comprehensive database of missing children,” Foley said.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said he’s “deeply concerned to hear the Justice Department is evidently not fulfilling its duty to gather this information.”
Dodd, hoping to improve the reporting rate for missing-children cases, for three years has proposed a bill requiring local police to alert federal and state authorities “within two hours” of receiving a missing-child report. “We need to do everything within our power to protect our children,” he said.
Justice Department officials refused to comment for this story.
Telephone calls and e-mails from Scripps Howard News Service to more than a dozen Justice Department policymakers or their spokesmen went unanswered during the last three months. Letters to President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales mailed in mid-May also have gone unanswered, although an FBI spokesman confirmed they were received.
But a recently retired top Justice Department official said she didn’t know the law requires the report.
“I’m sorry I did not become aware there was a report that we weren’t filing that we were supposed to be filing,” said former Assistant Attorney General Deborah J. Daniels, whom Bush designated as America’s first federal Amber Alert coordinator in 2002 to help locate missing children.
“I tried to identify all the reports we were supposed to be making, whether on a one-time basis or on a continual basis. You wouldn’t believe how many there were. I don’t recall finding any that we just simply had never filed,” Daniels said.
She said the Justice Department is aware that some police departments are in violation of the 1990 law.
“There was an old, traditional belief that if any person was missing, police were supposed to wait 24 hours. And some state laws required 24 hours,” Daniels said. “We are still in the process to convince (police) departments that, in these cases, they can’t afford to wait 24 hours. Because a child is vulnerable, 24 hours could mean the difference between life and death.”
Scripps Howard, to study the problem, in February asked the FBI for an accounting of how many missing-children reports it received from each state and from every county. The bureau refused, claiming the data was the property of local law-enforcement groups and not of the federal government.
“It is inappropriate for the FBI to divulge information to the media about state and local law-enforcement records that reside in a law-enforcement-only database,” said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.
Bresson later said he was unaware of the reporting requirements under the National Child Search Assistance Act. “I’m not sure what, if anything, the act specifically directs the FBI to do,” he said.
The bureau prepares monthly summaries of missing-person cases, including the number of missing children. These records are confidentially maintained by the Justice Department, even though the 1990 law instructs the attorney general to publish annual summaries of missing-children reports.
“The FBI does provide an annual report on missing persons to the Department of Justice. You would have to speak with DOJ on whether or not the numbers are released publicly,” Bresson said.
Further attempts to obtain missing-children data from Justice Department officials were unsuccessful.
Scripps Howard was able to make a limited study of child-reporting rates by some police departments by using 37,665 missing-children cases received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2004. Most of these reports were given to the center by parents of the missing children. That study was based on a small sampling of missing-children cases. The FBI received nearly 4.2 million missing-person reports during the same five years, most of whom were children.
Because Congress gave the National Center the authority to review FBI files, its investigators could check whether cases they received had been properly reported to federal authorities. About 12 percent of all of those missing-children cases did not appear to have been reported to the FBI.
The New York City Police Department had one of the worst reporting rates in the study because detectives keep missing-children cases at the city’s 85 precincts for days or weeks before passing them on to the central Missing Persons Unit, which alone has authority to report missing children to the FBI.
Many other police departments were found to have low reporting rates, often because police have a policy of not reporting runaways. The Honolulu Police Department, for example, reported only about 10 missing children last year even though it arrested more than 2,700 runaway children.
Daniels said that “most departments do an admirable job” in promptly reporting missing children, “but there’s still some work to be done.”
She agreed with the FBI’s claim that specific details contained in case files recorded in the National Crime Information Center database belong to local police departments. But she said she does not know why previous Justice officials did not begin reporting summary information when directed by Congress 15 years ago.
“I have no idea what they thought in 1990,” Daniels said. “I would have thought we would have been doing this on a regular basis.”
(Contact Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet(at)shns.com)