Written by AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program Administrator Jim Walters

(Back Row) Anna Green, Lesley Small, Yvonne Ambrose, Sarah Beck, Abby Potash, Edeanna Babiro
(Front Row) Byron Fassett, Gus Paidousis, Roger Day, Stephanie Dobson, Jodi Peterson, Diana Lambert, Hope Berg, James Jessee, Tammy Mata, Ladora Johnson, Pam Schmidt, Bonnie Ferenbach, Ron Laney, Theresa Lewis

For more than 15 years, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program (AATTAP) has conducted family roundtable meetings with the specific purpose of providing a venue for communication and collaboration between victims, surviving family members and law enforcement. These gatherings facilitate interaction and dialogue where participants can discuss lessons learned and provide information on criminal justice system services, first responder actions and interactions, as well as feedback from life experiences associated with their families’ missing, abducted, endangered or murdered child investigation.

These roundtables are a collaborative effort between AATTAP and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), with both organizations providing input on families who participate, subject matter experts (SMEs) who facilitate discussions, and trauma specialists to assist participants through what can be a very emotionally challenging experience. Each year’s event is designed to bring together families who are new to the roundtable, partnering them with family members from past roundtables who serve to guide and support them through the process.

Past roundtables have included sessions specific to the experiences and needs of siblings of missing, abducted and murdered children, long-term missing cases, parental abductions and international parental kidnappings. Events have included family members from almost every state in the nation, with participants bringing diversity of geography, ethnicity and perspectives on these difficult, life-altering cases; as no group is immune from the tragedy of losing a child.

Every roundtable event follows a defined process, built from more than 15 years of evidence-based practices in working with survivors. The AATTAP has formalized its approach and best practices through “A Guide to Survivor Roundtables: Improving the Criminal Justice System through Survivor Input,” authored by former AATTAP Administrator Phil Keith and former OJJDP Program Manager and current AATTAP Associate Ron Laney.

“I have participated in several family roundtables over the years in our 27-year search for our son Jacob. It is amazing to experience the strength and encouragement shared between families. Many of them have suffered unimaginable pain and loneliness depending on individual responses from law enforcement or their own communities. It is heartening to be part of a support system that can offer light during the darkest times for these families. Hope lives in those who are searching for answers. Shared hope is even more powerful!”

Patty Wetterling
Mother of Jacob, abducted and murdered October 22, 1989, at age 11

This process ensures survivors are given a voice during the roundtable event, and results in information and recommendations from which training and technical assistance content can be developed. This method also promotes more effective responses to law enforcement and other child and family protection professionals tasked with the safe recovery and support of the abducted child.

Family roundtable events have provided incredible insights and knowledge, which benefit participants and criminal justice practitioners alike. Through invaluable input from family members on experiences in the aftermath of their child going missing, law enforcement, after-care providers and judicial personnel can vastly expand their important analyses of how these cases are handled. Moreover, the first-hand experiences so bravely provided by the families often span initial law enforcement response through the investigation and judicial proceedings, yielding important information on the effects each phase or aspect of the case has on the family.

Roundtable events have been instrumental in bringing the family’s perspective to the work of AATTAP and AMBER Alert programs across the nation. Roundtable findings have spurred important initiatives, such as efforts to eliminate waiting periods or other delays in entering the missing child into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and related missing persons records systems. Recommendations from participating families have provided the impetus for expansion of curriculum and the development of new training courses in the areas of advanced cold case and long-term missing investigations; digital evidence in child abduction cases; and canvass, search and recovery strategies.

In enduring the horror and trauma associated with the victimization of their family members, family roundtable participants are profoundly qualified to offer invaluable information through personal observations and experiences. They reveal what law enforcement, advocates and prosecutors do well–and what they could do better–during the initial response, investigation, prosecutorial and post-trial phases of the case. Their voices are critical to improving how we serve families in the time of their greatest need.

AATTAP works closely with survivors through the roundtable initiative and its continuous improvement processes to fully support them in both providing and receiving information. AATTAP and NCMEC maintain a strong focus on assisting families as they work through their own recoveries, providing them with resources and access to subject matter experts to address their questions and concerns.

Family members often need information on law enforcement policies, the latest child recovery strategies and resources, as well as help with improved practices for keeping their child’s case active with local law enforcement and media. These sessions provide the opportunity to meet one-on-one with AATTAP and NCMEC staff, gain knowledge and establish ongoing support that can assist them well beyond the roundtable event.

The relationships forged and work undertaken through the roundtable events continues even after participants return home. Each session concludes with a list of action items and suggestions for AATTAP and NCMEC to enhance and/or develop case studies, training, technical assistance and resource publications. An after-action report is provided to the roundtable participants in the weeks following the event.

Examining the survivor perspective, and more importantly using that insight to better serve survivors and improve investigative and prosecutorial practices, does not happen quickly or without significant effort and investment from all parties. Law enforcement leaders, prosecutors, judges, and child protection officials must be willing to listen and learn from surviving family members and victims. Their experiences are both unique and invaluable to the process of protecting our children. OJJDP’s Family Roundtable program is designed to give survivors a voice, and to help us bring missing children safely home.

If you know a family who would benefit from participating in the Family Roundtable, please email askamber@fvtc.edu and a specialist will contact you.

“The roundtable is so very important to the families. We can come together, contribute and share our ideas and thoughts [on] how we can make a positive change in this critical epidemic. It has helped me as I give my thoughts to law enforcement and others, and allows me to spread awareness from a father’s perspective. Thank you for holding these important roundtables for us all.”

Russell Barnes
Father of Phylicia, murdered December 28, 2010, at age 16