Woman crying

The safe recovery of an abducted child after an AMBER Alert doesn’t mean the end of work that needs to be done to support the family and build greater capacity for effective response with future incidents. Recognizing this, the Northeast Ohio AMBER Alert Committee (NOAAC) developed an AMBER Alert Family Response Plan to seek advice and information from the victim’s family after the work of law enforcement investigators and the power of strategic public alerting has brought a child safely home.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) believes the plan is the first formalized program at the local level to determine how the family perceived the work of law enforcement and how they feel they were treated during the investigation and AMBER Alert issuance. The family can also learn more through this program about additional resources from law enforcement and the greater community that are needed when these incidents occur.

The recognition of the need by the NOAAC arose in the spring of 2018, during the early moments of an AMBER Alert in Ohio when officers had to break up a family fight outside the police station. Tensions were high and the family needed immediate attention, but officers were busy pursuing leads. It became clear at that time more needed to be done to help victims and their families in the midst of endangered missing and abducted child cases.

“Our committee was primarily focused on law enforcement,” said Christopher Minek, Northeast Ohio AMBER Alert Coordinator. “We decided we needed to expand our knowledge for the victims of the AMBER Alert.”

Minek reached out to Gina DeJesus and her family to help with the plan. DeJesus was abducted in 2004 while walking to school and held in captivity for nine years with two other hostages in Cleveland, Ohio. Minek also gathered input from Jill Smialek of Cuyahoga County Witness Victims Services.

“Upon gaining her freedom, DeJesus has worked as a victim’s advocate,” said John T. Majoy, Newburgh Heights Police Chief and NOAAC Chair. “The concept of pairing her with a victim advocacy expert provides another dimension for law enforcement agencies.”

The Family Response Plan was implemented in June 2018 and includes a standardized protocol for law enforcement and victim services’ work with the family involved in an AMBER Alert. “The goal of the plan is to provide crisis stabilization and trauma informed communication by gathering information from families involved in an AMBER Alert,” said Minek.

Phase one of the plan provides step-by-step instructions on how a victim or witness service representative contacts family members to assess their willingness to participate in the plan. The family is given information on how their answers can help improve the AMBER Alert program and offer insights for law enforcement and victim services to more effectively work with families of an abducted child in the future.

If the family agrees, an interviewer asks specific questions about what was helpful and what could have been done differently during the incident. The family is also told the interviewer is not with law enforcement and that the information they provide will not be used for the investigation or prosecution of the suspect.

The interviewer then compiles a summary for the family to review. Once the family approves the information, it is shared with the AMBER Alert Committee, who considers how best to incorporate the input toward improvement in the AMBER Alert program and related training.

“The families need to have a voice,” said Majoy. “Families experience a number of challenges and questions during this time. It is important to instill hope and provide them a means of understanding what they are experiencing.”

Phase two of the Family Response Plan is titled “Deploying Hope.” One year after the alert, the interviewer contacts the survivor and family to assist in compiling a report to identify general themes of experiences following the incident, noting positive outcomes as well as places where gaps in support and recovery have been found.

The aim of the NOAAC plan shares important parallels with the work of the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program’s (AATTAP) Family Roundtable initiative. Implemented in 2011, AATTAP’s six Family Roundtable events held to date have brought together more than 180 survivors and family members to share experiences, offer critically important insights and develop formalized recommendations for law enforcement’s interactions with the family during endangered missing and abducted child incidents.

Emphasizing the importance of incorporating families’ recommendations into training for law enforcement and victim advocacy professionals, AATTAP Administrator Jim Walters believes their insights have had a direct impact on resolving other child abduction cases. “There is probably no more important function we carry out than taking the time to listen to families about their individual cases. We learn so much from their tragedies and at the same time we allow them the opportunity to gather with other families who have been down the same terrible path they have travelled. By pre-planning we can cut down the time, stress and uncertainty that comes with not knowing what to do. Time is of the essence and having a plan in place saves time, it is as simple as that.”

NCMEC believes it is sound practice for each AMBER Alert program to have a formalized family response plan. NCMEC Vice President of the Missing Children Division, Bob Lowery, believes these plans should be used in a multidisciplinary manner during an alert to minimize the trauma of the situation.

“Families that have experienced an AMBER Alert are uniquely suited to provide insight, concerns, and recommendations for AMBER Alert partners,” said Lowery. “The recovery of the missing child is the beginning of what can be a lengthy reunification process as the child and family begin to come to terms with the crime and what this means moving forward.”

Walters also encourages other AMBER Alert programs to create their own family response plans. “Plans are so important because they put things into place so they can be acted upon, so everyone knows what they can do to ensure the safety of the child.”

Chief Majoy said the Family Response Plan will continue to be a work in progress. He said it is important to share the NOAAC plan with other AMBER Alert partners; and in return he hopes to learn from them as well. “We all have a common goal in the safe return of the victim.”