Nacole Svendgard’s 15-year-old daughter Jessica was excelling in school. She was named first violin in the orchestra and played on the varsity and junior varsity soccer team in Auburn, Washington. Jessica was outgoing, vibrant and lit up the room when she walked in.
Nacole was beyond shocked in 2010 when she came home and found a 5-page letter from Jessica saying she loved her family but was running away and not to worry. The mother of three spoke on the first day of the 2021 National AMBER Alert and AMBER in Indian Country virtual symposium held August 17-19, 2021.
More than 170 participants from 46 states and territories took part in the virtual event to learn, network and identify areas to help strengthen efforts to find missing and abducted children. They included AMBER Alert coordinators, Missing Persons Clearinghouse Managers, Child Abduction Response Team (CART) leaders and other federal, state and Tribal partners.
Nacole learned her daughter was being sex trafficked, raped, beaten and struggling to survive while her pimp was selling her on the online publication Backpage to strangers in Seattle. Nacole reported what happened to law enforcement. She finally got a call from Jessica, but she only said “I can’t come home.”
“I knew trafficking existed,” said Nacole. “I was one of those parents who thought it happened in the Philippines or another third-world country. It didn’t happen in my community and it definitely didn’t happen to my child.”
After 10 days of hunting for their daughter, Jessica approached a police officer and said she had run away and wanted to come home. Nacole explained that following her daughter’s recovery, rather than a clear after-care plan being in place, law enforcement and the community took a hands-off approach at that point and they assumed the teen was safe because she was now home.
Jessica didn’t want to talk to her family about what happened when she was gone. She went back to school, attended church and continued her violin lessons. However, three months later she ran again; lured away after the pimp contacted her on a hidden cellphone.
That’s when Nacole began her efforts to learn more about the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and her state’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse. She sought resources available to families of sex trafficking victims. In explaining this part of the journey in her daughter’s experience, she emphasized the critical importance of those who are involved with endangered, missing and abducted child cases pursuing comprehensive training to learn how to assist victims of exploitation and trafficking, as they rarely say they want help due to the deception, fear, violence, and trauma bonding by which they are entrapped.
Eventually Jessica came home again and the family began therapy and met with other survivors for support. Jessica and her parents generously and bravely participated in the sex trafficking documentaries “I Am Jane Doe” and “The Long Night.” Jessica’s trafficker and one of the “johns” were convicted and sentenced to prison.
“I was 15. I should have experienced a childhood during my teenage years. I should be going to football games,” said Jessica to a network reporter. “Now I’m a proud survivor, a mother, a daughter, a sister. I am all of these things and I want to be known for who I am, and not just what’s happened to me.”
Jessica and her family became advocates for other sex trafficking victims, helped pass legislation and pursued lawsuits that put an end to Backpage. The family was invited to the White House in April 2018 for the signing of changes to the Communications Decency Act.
Chryl Jones, Acting Administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection (OJJDP), provided symposium participants with the perspective of the Department of Justice AMBER Alert Program. She noted that more than 1,000 children have been recovered safely because of AMBER Alerts.
“That number represents a lot of smiles that you’ve returned to the faces of people who couldn’t fathom ever smiling again when their child went missing or was abducted,” said Jones. “Your job is not easy, but it is a worthwhile one. Thank you for your dedication to ensuring the safety and well-being of our nation’s children. You are the heroes they deserve.”
Janell Rasmussen, the newly appointed AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program Administrator (AATTAP), thanked everyone for participating in the first virtual symposium.
“I know firsthand the passion, hard work and dedication that you all put forward in your work to find missing and abducted children,” said Rasmussen. “This work is tireless, it is demanding, it takes a toll on you mentally, physically, and on your heart in ways you never knew possible, but it is also rewarding. You make a true difference in the lives of children, for their families, and for the future of the AMBER Alert program.”
Jayme Closs Case Study
Barron County, Wisconsin, Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald offered a detailed look into the abduction of Jayme Closs on October 5, 2018. The case received national attention when Jake Patterson took the 13-year-old girl after fatally shooting her parents and then keeping her hidden in his home for 88 days until she escaped on January 10, 2019.
Fitzgerald stressed the importance of developing a plan and close relationships with other law enforcement agencies, the media, and community groups - before you face a complicated and high-profile case like this one.
“Because you never know when this day is going to happen,” said Fitzgerald. “I never thought in my career I would touch anything like this, but this happened here--and it happens everywhere.”
The Sheriff said so many people wanted to volunteer to help at first that he had to learn to say no to protect the investigation and his limited resources. He emphasized how important it was to provide plenty of food for everyone working on the case and to have a photographer to document major milestones and the community response. Amidst the length and complexity of the case, he earnestly shared how rewarding it was to find Jayme alive.
“Jayme is doing great now,“ said Fitzgerald. “I just think you never give up hope, no matter how negative it is or how frustrated you are.”
Honoring an AMBER Alert Leader
AATTAP Administrator Janell Rasmussen presented a special award to Mark Simpson. Simpson was a detective for the Arlington, Texas, Police Department and the lead investigator in the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman on January 13, 1996. He helped create the first AMBER Alert Plan and has been sharing his knowledge on AMBER Alerts and child abduction investigations through AATTAP course curricula, training events and contributions to the development of multiple resources for more than two decades before retiring this year.
“Mark was always willing to help any AMBER Alert coordinator in any way. His work, his genuine kindness, his passion, are just some of the things that make Mark the legend he is with this program. I cannot imagine the AMBER Alert program without Mark Simpson,” Rasmussen shared. “His work is legendary, and his commitment to this program has been unwavering. How better to recognize Mark today than to honor him in partnership with the coordinators who continue this work across this country and beyond?”
Phil Keith, the first AATTAP Administrator, praised Simpson for his knowledge, integrity and humility. “Integrity is incredibly important when it comes to training; making sure you have individuals who are qualified or experienced, and have a passion to help others gain the insights and abilities to be as successful as the instructors,” Keith said. He noted how Mark’s tenure and training outcomes epitomized his knowledge and integrity.
Jim Walters, his predecessor, also praised Simpson for his willingness to train others. “I’ve never worked with anybody who has a greater knowledge of how to handle or manage an investigation, and at the same time having the empathy and care for the people we serve,” said Walters.
Simpson said he was humbled by the award and that training others about missing and abducted children has been a highlight of his career. “There is no greater group of people than those who are absolutely committed to finding children and bringing those responsible for the crimes they committed to justice,” said Simpson.
In addition to the USDOJ-OJJDP welcoming message, family perspective presentations from Nacole Svengard (luring and trafficking) and Pamela Foster (Abductions in Indian Country and AMBER Alert needs), and the case study presentation from Sheriff Fitzgerald, symposium participants enjoyed engaging with informative presentations on a variety of topics delivered by subject matter experts in their respective fields. Topics included:
- Secondary Trauma and Traumatic Stress
- Community Response to High-Risk Missing Victims
- Crucial Digital Follow-Up and Recovery in Missing, Runaway and Endangered Child Cases
- Long-Term Missing and Unresolved Abduction Homicides
- Developing an AMBER Alert Plan for Tribal Communities
- Child Abductions: Current Trends in Technology
- Search and Canvass in Missing and Abducted Child Cases
- Legal Issues in Missing and Abducted Child Cases
- Technological and Specific Resources Needed to Support Tribal AMBER Alerts
- Updates from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
- AATTAP-AIIC Resources for the Field
Networking: Breakout Sessions for Collaboration Across States and Roles
One of the most important components of the symposium took place through regional breakout sessions where participants across states and disciplines could meet (or reconnect) with one another and discuss best practices and challenges through a facilitated series of topical questions, including:
- Case Studies: Relevance in training and recommendations for new case study development
- Technology advancements such as WEA’s hyperlink integration and geo-fencing
- Child Abduction Response Team (CART) training and resource needs
- High-risk victims and special needs populations: Understanding, identification and effective response
- Best practices for and challenges with multi-state AMBER Alerts
- Internet/Social Media luring into sexual exploitation and trafficking: identification and effective response with runaway youth
- Effective administration of AMBER Alerts in light of the emergence of multiple public alerts (such as Silver, Blue, Green, etc.)
- Best practices for and challenges with multi-state AMBER Alerts
- Challenges in providing training during the pandemic
In addition to breakout sessions, the 2021 symposium’s virtual delivery platform, Whova, provided tools and features designed to promote introductions and information/idea sharing, along with session and overall event feedback.
AATTAP-AIIC and NCMEC Resources
In addition to the symposium, AATTAP-AIIC provides a wealth of additional training and resources. AATTAP Project Coordinator Bonnie Ferenbach invited participants to regularly check The AMBER Advocate and AMBER Alert in Indian Country websites for the latest news updates, downloadable resources, and training opportunities, including self-paced eLearning, webinars and live-instructor led courses.
Ferenbach urged AMBER Alert Coordinators, Missing Persons Clearinghouse Managers and Child Abduction Response Team (CART) leaders to use the secure AMBER Alert Portal located within the AMBER Advocate website; where they will find contact information for colleagues in other states, a partners discussion board, a resource library built upon the AMBER Alert plans and related child protection resources developed by the states, and more.
“You can share with other partners in a secure way, and can share templates, forms and documents that will help other partners so no one has to reinvent the wheel,” said Ferenbach.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) is a vital AATTAP-AIIC partner. As part of this year’s updates from NCMEC, Dr. John E. Bischoff III, NCMEC’s Vice President of the Missing Children Division, said the organization has expanded efforts to locate children with autism and kids living in tribal communities.
NCMEC Is also revamping the missing children posters for the first time since 2012. The new posters are more mobile-friendly and include QR codes that link to a website with more information about each case.
“We want to make it easier for them to find information, easier for them to share the poster faster and keep that image of a missing child out in the community,” said Bischoff. “So when they see our poster, they know what to do and they can take action right away.”
NCMEC has created new partnerships with the Outdoor Advertising Association for electronic billboards and automated license plate reader (ALPR) companies. The organization is also expanding efforts to collect biometrics (unique physical characteristics) and DNA samples to help track and identify missing children.