A Primer for Missing Children’s Day

Florida offers step-by-step plan for making a missing children awareness event memorable

(From front, left to right) Colonel James Wiggins – Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Deputy Chief Jay Ethridge – Dept. of Financial Services, Ashley Moody – Florida Attorney General, Casey Desantis – First Lady of Florida, Commissioner Richard Swearingen – Florida Department of Law Enforcement
(From front, left to right) Colonel James Wiggins – Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Deputy Chief Jay Ethridge – Dept. of Financial Services, Ashley Moody – Florida Attorney General, Casey Desantis – First Lady of Florida, Commissioner Richard Swearingen – Florida Department of Law Enforcement

May 25 is the date both the U.S. and the international community designate as Missing Children’s Day. Because this annual event holds such significance in the work done by state AMBER Alert Coordinators and Missing Children Clearinghouse Managers, a great deal of planning and preparation is undertaken to ensure events are successful in raising community awareness of and commitment to efforts to recover missing and abducted children. This can be daunting for individuals newly serving in these roles as they look to carry on (or create) strong traditions around annual Missing Children’s Day.

Missing Children’s Day was first designated by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. The annual commemoration was adopted as a joint venture in 1998 by the U.S. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC).

Craig Schroeder, who recently left the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), has been actively involved in making Missing Children’s Day a huge success in the Sunshine State. He graciously shared with us how he makes it happen, and welcomes other states to consider the strategies and action steps he and his team used if they can be helpful in planning for Missing Children’s Day and other special events recognizing missing and abducted children.

Can you walk us step-by-step through what you have done for recent Missing Children’s Day planning and events?

Missing Children’s Day is a ceremony with two major components. The first is an awards ceremony honoring law enforcement officers, citizens, and children who have made heroic efforts to recover a missing child or have made great strides in combatting child abduction and human trafficking.

The second component is the Time of Remembrance, where we invite the families from Florida Missing Children’s Day Foundation, as well as families of children who were missing and found deceased. We honor their children in the presence of the Florida governor, heads of state, sheriffs, police chiefs and other state dignitaries.

During the program, the FDLE Commissioner reads the names of each child as specially selected music is played. The governor and first lady present each family with a rose—white roses for deceased children, and yellow roses for missing children. Roses are placed by posters which display each honored child’s picture.

How is responsibility for tasks organized when preparing for the annual event?

The Florida Missing Children’s Day event requires cooperation from multiple agencies. FDLE is the primary coordinator, and it partners with local vendors and state agencies, including the Florida Capitol, Capitol Police, Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Tallahassee Police Department, and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office. Funds are raised for the event by the Florida Missing Children’s Day Foundation, a 501c3 established to raise funds for the annual event.

What awards are presented in conjunction with the Missing Children’s Day event?

Florida offers awards in the following categories:

  • Legacy Award
  • Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year
  • State/Federal Law Enforcement of the Year
  • Task Force/Team of the Year
  • Combatting Human Trafficking Award
  • Citizen of the Year
  • School Bus Operator of the Year
  • Essay Contest Winner
  • Poster Contest Winner

How are these categories decided upon? Do they change from year to year?

Many of our categories have been in place since the inaugural Missing Children’s Day ceremony in 1998. Over time, some categories have been added. For instance, when Pam Bondi was the Florida Attorney General, her office asked to sponsor an award recognizing work in Combatting Human Trafficking, which has been an ongoing category of recognition made every year since. Additionally, we created the Legacy Award last year, and it was presented for the first time to Mr. Don Ryce, father of Jimmy Ryce, a tireless advocate for endangered, missing, and abducted children.

How is outreach for nominations done each year?

Our award nominations are opened in early spring of each year and are disseminated statewide to law enforcement agencies through our partners at the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association.

What has been one of the most significant outcomes from the work done to recognize AMBER Alert partners in your state?

Recognizing AMBER Alert partners and those who made strides in protecting children has really brought awareness to Floridians about the ongoing and steadfast commitment of agencies across the state in working together to respond swiftly and effectively when a child is in danger.

What is involved in administering your essay contest?

Our essay contest begins in January of each year when schools return from winter break. Our partners at the Florida Department of Education send out a memorandum outlining the contest rules to all Florida grade schools, calling for essays from their fifth-grade classes.  Students are asked to write a one-page essay on the theme “How I Stay Safe All Day.”

Essays are generally due in early March. Once all have been received, they are divided up into seven regions—one for each FDLE Regional Operations Center. The essays are sent to the governor’s legal office, another partner who helps us facilitate many facets of the Missing Children’s Day event. They choose a single winner from each of the seven regions. Those seven winners are then sent to Department of Education representatives who select a panel to determine a single, statewide winner.

In the event of a tie, FDLE assembles a panel to make the final decision. The winning essayist is invited to the Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony to receive his/her award and read the essay to the audience.

What steps do you take to administer the poster contest?

The poster contest is usually initiated in the late fall by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Florida begins its poster contest the first week in January when students return to school. The information and rules for the poster day contest are disseminated to schools across the state through our contacts at the Department of Education (DOE).

Once the deadline arrives, we gather all posters. The contest coordinator holds an initial review to eliminate any posters that did not adhere to contest rules (wrong poster size, unacceptable medium, missing the required phrase, etc.). All eligible posters are then judged by a panel of FDLE and DOE members to select the winner.

The winning artist is invited to the Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony to receive his/her award. A billboard is created from the poster and is posted throughout the state, thanks to our partners at the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association.

What do you do to help publicize the event?

The Florida Missing Children’s Day presentation is a public event that usually draws around 500 people to the Capitol Complex. To publicize the event, we send out invitations to all partner agencies and post information to the Florida Missing Endangered Persons Information Clearinghouse (MEPIC) page as well as the Florida Missing Children’s Day Foundation page. News releases are sent statewide and our public information officers also provide updates both before and following the event.

Can you share some examples of media coverage?

We always have the Florida Channel broadcast the event live. In addition, local news media attend and frequently interview award winners and family members.

We also try to create other events to garner attention. For instance, last year we partnered with the Tampa Bay Rays to hold a Missing Children’s Day event at Tropicana Field, where our poster and essay contest winners threw out the first pitch. All attendees were given a Florida Missing Children’s Day bracelet and we set up a table at the main entrance to provide more information.

What is the overarching goal of Florida’s Missing Children’s Day program?

Our goal for Missing Children’s Day is to bring awareness to the issue of missing children. We highlight ongoing challenges by awarding law enforcement officers and citizens for their bravery, as well as keeping a spotlight on Florida children who are still missing.

Can you share any stories of previous winners or events that made a difference in the recovery of missing and abducted children?

Our Jimmy Ryce K-9 Trailing Team of the Year, named for Jimmy Ryce, who was abducted and murdered in 1996, always produces a winner who made direct and significant impacts on recovering a missing child. For instance, this year’s winner was an officer and his K9 partner who tracked an at-risk child who wandered from his home, over a highway and through the woods. Their efforts brought the child home unharmed.

What advice would you offer to other AMBER Alert Coordinators in their work to make Missing Children’s Day a significant and effective event in their states?

The most significant part of the ceremony is the Time of Remembrance; it is important to remind these families whose children have been missing for weeks, months, years, and even decades, that we have not forgotten about them. For other coordinators who are working on a Missing Children’s Day event or program, I encourage them to never lose sight of the important and positive impacts created when we strive to keep these families and their children front and center.

Note: Craig Schroeder recently left FDLE for another position but Florida Missing Children’s Day will continue as it always has. Craig’s supervisor, Senior Management Analyst Supervisor Brendie Hawkins, will assume his duties until a replacement is made. She is available for any questions at BrendieHawkins@fdle.state.fl.us.