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December 2012: Missing Children With Special Needs

Every missing child is a child at risk — but a missing child with special needs is particularly vulnerable, and at even greater risk for harm. Investigators have learned that the search for a missing child with special needs requires a more varied toolbox of investigative techniques. And first responders have learned that it is imperative that they first talk to parents, siblings, relatives, caregivers and others to find out as much as they can about the child’s interests, fascinations, stimulations or obsessions, then use that information to develop a search plan and identify attraction tactics — such as a particular sound, object or food — specifically for that child. This month’s MECP newsletter focuses on the investigative challenges in locating missing children with special needs.

This month’s newsletter also highlights National AMBER Alert Awareness Day, which is observed on January 13, 2013. This year’s commemoration marks the inauguration of the nation’s transition to the Wireless Emergency Alerts program, which will greatly enhance the ability of law enforcement to disseminate AMBER Alert information directly to smart phone users in the area where a missing child search is underway.

Both of these issues — the special investigative needs of cases involving a missing special needs child, and the changeover of AMBER Alerts to a wireless emergency alert system — underscore the advances we have made in our approach to missing child cases: bringing both highly sophisticated investigative techniques and the very latest in smart phone technology to bear on the search and recovery of missing children everywhere.


Missing Children With Special Needs

The behaviors and actions of missing children with special needs can be very different from those of a missing non-affected child. For example, a child with special needs may actively hide from search teams; may seek shelter or concealment in small, tightly enclosed spaces; may experience a diminished sense of fear that makes high-risk behaviors, such as seeking water or a busy roadway, very attractive; or may be unable to speak or respond to rescuers. In addition, nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder have a tendency to wander away from a safe environment — a rate nearly four times higher than non-affected children — and many are unable to communicate their name, address or phone number.1 Consequently, finding and safely recovering a missing child with special needs often presents unique and difficult challenges for families, law enforcement, first responders and search teams.

In December, MECP partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) to host a webinar on NCMEC’s Missing Children With Special Needs Addendum toMissing and Abducted Children: A Law-Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management. The webinar presenter discussed the challenges of searching for children with special needs and suggested specific strategies for investigators who are engaged in the search for them.

NCMEC has partnered with experts from the National Autism Association and other groups to develop the addendum, which recommends specialized training and enhanced service delivery for law enforcement. The addendum includes response recommendations, recovery and reunification strategies, and detailed information for law enforcement when faced with these types of cases. To view the webinar recording and download NCMEC’s Missing Children With Special Needs Addendum and other resources, please visit here.


AMBER Alert Awareness Day

On January 13, 2013, communities across the country will gather to observe National AMBER Alert Awareness Day — a day memorialized in honor of Amber Hagerman, whose tragic kidnapping and murder led to the establishment of a national America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alert Program by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). On this day, DOJ and participating AMBER Alert programs across the country recognize the collaborative efforts of law enforcement and their communities to safely recover missing children. To date, more than 595 children have been successfully recovered as a result of the AMBER Alert Program.

The AMBER Alert Program is a voluntary partnership involving law enforcement agencies, broadcasters and transportation agencies. Upon receiving a missing child report, the AMBER program issues an urgent bulletin, which includes a description of the abducted child and the suspected abductor.

On Dec. 14, 2012, CTIA-The Wireless Association®, The Wireless Foundation™, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Syniverse announced that on Dec. 31, 2012, the Wireless AMBER Alerts™ program will end operations, as part of the nation’s transition to the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program. That means that millions of cellphone users across the country will now receive free, automatic notifications about abducted children in their area as part of the WEA program. Consumers with WEA-capable smart phones and feature phones and services are automatically enrolled to receive AMBER Alerts for free, along with Presidential and Imminent Threat Alerts.

Unlike Wireless AMBER Alerts, WEA AMBER Alerts will use the latest technology to send messages to wireless customers with WEA-capable devices in the area where a child has been abducted, even if the wireless customer isn’t from the area. This is important because statistics show that the first three hours after abduction are the most critical in recovery efforts, and the ability to quickly engage the public in the search for an abducted child can be crucial in helping law enforcement bring that child home safely.2 This new advancement places the AMBER Alert in the hands of individuals who are nearby and greatly expands the Alerts’ reach to people who can aid in the recovery of abducted children.

NCMEC CEO John Ryan shared his thoughts about the AMBER Alert-WEA advancement: “The AMBER Alert Program was based on the idea that when armed with the right information, we can all play a part in bringing abducted children home safely. Wireless AMBER Alerts were an important evolution of that program, and we are grateful to those who made it possible. They understand that the eyes and ears of many are better than the eyes and ears of a few when a child’s life is at stake.”

On this AMBER Alert Awareness Day, we encourage you to learn more about your state’s AMBER Alert criteria and AMBER Alert Awareness Day plans by visiting www.amberalert.gov.


Request Training and Technical Assistance From MECP

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) Missing and Exploited Children’s Program offers training and technical assistance tailored to meet the specific needs of local, state and tribal law enforcement, nonprofit organizations and other juvenile justice practitioners. If you are interested in learning how your agency or organization can receive training and technical assistance, please contact MECP.


Upcoming Events

National Missing Children’s Day Award Nominations Are Due January 18, 2013. Each year, OJJDP recognizes the courageous and valiant efforts of individuals, organizations and agencies that have made a difference in recovering abducted children and protecting them from exploitation. In 2013, OJJDP will make awards in the following categories:

  • Missing Children’s Law Enforcement Award
  • Missing Children’s Citizen Award
  • Child Protection Award
  • 2013 Internet Crimes Against Children Attorney General’s Award

If you know a law enforcement officer, private citizen or an organization that has taken extraordinary measures either to investigate and safely recover a missing child or to prevent children from being abducted, you can help that person or organization receive formal recognition by nominating them for this year’s National Missing Children’s Day awards. Eligibility requirements, nomination forms and judging criteria can be found on the National Missing Children’s Day Awards page. All nominations must be submitted via the online web form by January 18, 2013.


MECP’s Training Center

January 25, 2013: San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment.The Chadwick Center proudly announces the 27th Annual San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. The San Diego Conference focuses on multidisciplinary best-practice efforts to prevent, evaluate, investigate, prosecute and treat child and family maltreatment. For more information about the conference, please visit our Training Center.

2013 AMBER Alert Training Calendar. The AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program provides training, technical assistance and other services to federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies as well as to other key AMBER Alert stakeholders to increase collaboration, improve skills, and develop effective policies and practices to protect and safely recover missing, endangered and abducted children.

Take a look at the 2013 AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program calendar at www.amber-net.org or at the MECP Training Center for detailed information about the wide range of training and technical assistance services available to enhance the AMBER Alert program.

Advertise Your Event to MECP Newsletter Readers. To submit a request to have your event advertised through the MECP Training Center, please click here.

We’d Like to Hear From You. MECP invites you to share your stories about your organization’s contributions to the juvenile justice field. It is our goal to expand awareness about all the issues surrounding missing children and child exploitation as well as increase understanding of the impact of your work — its value for practice, policy, ongoing research, advocacy, and more importantly, for youth, families and communities. We’d also like to promote networking opportunities for organizations across the country to connect with one another and help others by sharing success stories in our monthly newsletter. To submit your success stories, please visit us online here. And thank you for all you do to make a positive difference in our children’s lives.

For information on training and technical assistance opportunities on missing and exploited children’s issues, contact MECP at 1-888-347-5610 or [email protected]. To submit a request for training and technical assistance, please complete a training and technical assistance form.



1.  Autism and Safety Facts. Attleboro Falls, Mass.: National Autism Association, accessed on July 24, 2012, at nationalautismassociation.org/resources/autism-safety-facts.

2.  CTIA Wireless. Consumer Info: Wireless AMBER Program at http://ctia.org/consumer_info/safety/index.cfm/AID/10361.