‘A Missing Kid Is Never Forgotten. No Matter How Long They’ve Been Gone’: How The FBI Handles Missing Children Cases
By Deepti Govind
Child abductions are, thankfully, rare in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said in its “Inside the FBI” podcast on May 25, Missing Children’s Day. But when it does happen, the statistics tell a terrifying story: Half of all kids who are taken and murdered are killed within an hour of the abduction occurring. Within three hours, that number jumps to 76%, the agency says. After 24 hours, that number becomes a horrific near-90%. It’s only obvious then that when it comes to finding a missing child, it’s always a race against time for law enforcement agencies.
Helping local law enforcement find missing children, and find them fast, is one of the FBI’s most important jobs. The Bureau has published two podcasts so far in its “Missing Children’s Cases” series. We give you a rundown of those podcasts in today’s feature story, including looking at myths about missing children’s cases and tips on keeping your families safe, plus an overview of the Bureau’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) Team, and what to do if your child goes missing, according to the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), there were 421,394 entries for children under the age of 18 who were reported missing in the United States in 2019. May 25 is observed as National Missing Children’s Day in honor of one such child who went missing on the day, back in 1979. That year, 6-year-old Etan Patz left his house to go to school. But, tragically, he never even made it to his bus. It would be decades later that the FBI and others would learn that he was kidnapped and murdered that same day. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared May 25 National Missing Children’s Day in Etan Patz’s memory. International Missing Children’s Day is also observed on the same day.
Busting Myths And Useful Tips From The FBI
The 24-hour rule is a myth!
When it comes to missing kids, one of the biggest and most dangerous myths that the FBI works to dispel is the notion that the Bureau won’t get involved in a case until after 24 hours have passed since a child went missing, Monica Grover from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs says on the episode from May 25.
Another myth is that the FBI can only investigate kidnappings if the child is thought to have been taken across state lines. That’s not true either.
Like Special Agent Jim Granozio, a member of the FBI’s Charlotte Field Office CARD Team says on the podcast: “As soon as a child isn’t where they’re supposed to be, we want to know. And we want to help.” There’s no need to show interstate travel, no need for an AMBER Alert, and no need to even show any evidence of an abduction. The mysterious disappearance of a child, which simply means that a child is just not where they’re supposed to be, is enough for the FBI to get involved, and at a very early stage, Granozio adds.
The AMBER Alert Program is a voluntary partnership between broadcasters, transportation agencies, law enforcement agencies, and the wireless industry to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child abduction cases. The acronym stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. It began in 1996, when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed up with local police. It was created as a legacy to honor 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and was then brutally murdered.
As a parent or a caregiver, one other important myth you need to know about is that the “stranger danger” mantra is not enough. Strangers rarely kidnap kids. Less than 1% of all kids that go missing are true stranger abductions, the FBI says. In many cases, it is a known abduction, and can even be done by relatives. These days, an increasing amount of danger to children also comes from the internet. It’s become a common strategy for perpetrators to meet children online first and then lure them away, which is easier than outright kidnapping a child because predators can “groom” a child to go to the kidnapper themselves.
What is online grooming? In the context of sexual abuse and exploitation, grooming (or “sexual grooming”) is the act of befriending and influencing a child, and sometimes the child’s family as well, for the purpose of preparing the child for sexual activity. Online grooming is the same process, but over the Internet. It refers to the use of digital technologies to establish or build a relationship with a child in order to facilitate either non-contact (online) or contact (offline) sexual interaction with that child. It can happen through email, instant messaging apps, social networking sites, chatrooms, online gaming sites, photo sharing sites, and dating apps, which can be accessed through personal computers and laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. You read more about this topic in a guest piece from our archives, published in 2017, when online grooming was not a particularly well-known term.
What are some tips the FBI offers for parents and caregivers when it comes to protecting kids, especially online?
First off, Special Agent Granozio says it’s important for parents to get involved, know what their kids are doing online and who they are talking to. Be your child’s resource to vent out frustrations and life’s issues, so there’s no room for someone online to make that connection. “Know what they’re doing, know who they’re talking to. Know who their friends are and know who they’re communicating with,” he says. But parents need to be prepared for the unthinkable, too, he adds. That can be a scary thought for any parent, but it’s always better to be prepared.
One way the FBI recommends is to have your child’s photos and physical descriptions at hand and stored. It can be a time saver — and, as we established at the start of this piece, the first hour after a kidnapping is critical. The FBI offers an app that can help parents do this: the Child ID app. This technology lets you store photos and physical descriptions of your child directly on your device. If your child ever goes missing, you can use the app to quickly send their information to the authorities. Granozio says he keeps the app on his phone for his own children.
So during that all-crucial first hour, parents don’t have to spend time searching for a current photo of their child to give the police. They can help them get to work instantly with the click of a button, which will then email the information and photo to the responding law enforcement agency, so they can have it handy for any missing person flyers, or to send out the local and state law enforcement who are responding. The FBI says it does not store or collect the photos or information you enter into the app. The data lives on your device unless you choose to email it to law enforcement in an emergency.
FBI’s CARD Team
When a child goes missing, it impacts the whole community. So, the Bureau has an additional investigative asset that can be called upon for these time-sensitive cases: the CARD team. It was created in 2006, and, in a post from May 2014, the FBI said the team had been deployed more than 100 times for approximately 108 victims, both domestically and — when requested — abroad.
The team, which is currently made up of 75 agents, analysts, and other Bureau personnel from across the country, teaches local law enforcement officers how to respond to child abductions. When a child goes missing, law enforcement can contact their local FBI office and ask for assistance from the team. It is, effectively, a tool for local law enforcement.
Once state and local authorities ask the CARD team for help on a case, the team gets to work, learning everything they can about that missing child first. Some of their questions are standard ones, like how old the child is and whether they have ever run away from home before. Other questions may be less obvious, like who they have been talking with online and whether it looks like they took their phone or their toothbrush.
Some of the tactics used by the CARD team include canvassing the area; interviewing family, friends, and neighbors; looking at what the child was doing online around the time they vanished; and using publicity tools to spread the word to the community. Even if authorities have reason to believe that the child wasn’t kidnapped, the CARD team will still provide assistance, the FBI’s Agent Grover says. Children under 13 years old are less likely to run away, but older children, whether they’ve run away or been abducted, are vulnerable to human trafficking and other threats.
CARD team investigators are seasoned veterans in cases involving crimes committed against children — especially child abductions — and have received extensive training, the FBI says on its website. While some local law enforcement agencies may only work one or two child abduction cases a year, CARD team agents work these kinds of cases all the time, keeping their unique skill-set honed. They often deploy to the abduction site with FBI behavioral analysis experts and technical specialists in tow. CARD team agents also work closely with National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime coordinators, members of the regional FBI-led Child Exploitation Task Forces, and representatives from the Violent Crimes Against Children Section at the FBI Headquarters.
The public can often help the FBI piece together missing links, and any piece of information may prove to be critical to a case. In its second missing children podcast, published on June 22, the FBI delves into some longtime missing children’s cases and explains how the public could help bring the children home.
What To Do If Your Child Is Missing
The NCMEC publishes a detailed, downloadable checklist of what actions a family can take in the initial stages of a child going missing.
Here are a few pointers based on that:
- Immediately call your local law enforcement agency
- Search through closets, piles of laundry, in and under beds, inside large appliances, vehicles, and anywhere else that a child might crawl or hide first if your child is missing from home
- Notify the store manager or security office if your child cannot be found when in a store. Then immediately call your local law enforcement agency. Many stores have a Code Adam plan of action in place
- When you call law enforcement, you need to provide them with a list of details, which is where the aforementioned Child ID app by the FBI comes in handy.
You can reach NCMEC with any questions at 1-800-THE-LOST(1-800-843-5678).
It’s also important to mention, at this juncture, that NCMEC’s analysis of data on the missing children reported to it between 2016-2020, when compared with recent census data, indicates that Black and Native American children are disproportionately represented among missing children. Of the children reported missing, 31% were Black, while only 14% of the overall U.S. population is Black; 1.5% of the children reported missing to NCMEC were Native American, but only 0.8% of the total population is Native American, NCMEC said in a blog on June 24. This is, in part, due to the systemic and historical inequities that people of color, Native American and Indigenous communities face in society, it adds. You can read Biometrica’s older pieces on these topics here and here.
Every child matters. Period.
Special Agent Granozio sums it up beautifully on the FBI podcast: “I’ve done a lot of things with the FBI. I’ve traveled to Afghanistan, to Iraq. I’ve been to Nigeria. I’ve been in critical situations all over the country, but nothing has put me more in the arena, if you will, than working a missing child case. The command post of a missing child case is like no other location I’ve ever been to. The stress, the camaraderie, the work that is involved is like nothing else I’ve ever done in the FBI. And when you have the ability to go out and save a child and bring them home alive, it’s something that stays with you and creates a little tattoo on your heart, if you will.”
The FBI urges everyone to visit fbi.gov/missing2021 and look at the faces of the kids the Bureau is still searching for. You may spot a child you recognize.