By Paul Murphy
Janell Rasmussen spent more than 20 years working in public safety, developing, implementing, and operating multiple statewide law enforcement programs. In March 2021, she became the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program (AATTAP) Administrator, following Jim Walters’ retirement.
Early Life and Career
Rasmussen grew up in Mapleton, a small town in southern Minnesota. She was 13-years-old, close to the same age as Jacob Wetterling when he was abducted in 1989. That crime left an indelible impression on Rasmussen and everyone in Minnesota.
Rasmussen followed the case through Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, and the rest of their family. “She taught me the meaning of real hope,” she said. “She amazed me in her fight to bring Jacob home. I could never have believed how this tragedy could impact my life.”
Rasmussen attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then went to work for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). There, she managed the Minnesota Crime Alert Network, a program that started after the abduction and murder of a boy in Eden Prairie. This position gave her the opportunity to work with Wetterling and a small committee to put together a statewide AMBER Alert Plan. Minnesota’s AMBER Alert Plan was implemented in 2002 and was the seventh statewide plan in the U.S.
During her time at the BCA, Rasmussen oversaw the Minnesota AMBER Alert Plan, Missing Children’s Clearinghouse, Communication & Duty Officer Program, the Crimes Against Children in Indian Country Conference, and the President’s Initiative on Missing & Unidentified Persons.
Rasmussen continued working with Wetterling, and they attended the first National AMBER Alert Symposium together. Rasmussen said she was heartbroken when Jacob’s body was found in 2016, 27 years after his abduction.
“Patty believed every day that Jacob was alive and coming home,” Rasmussen said. “She has changed the entire way that law enforcement responds to missing children. She inspired Minnesota and the rest of the world to work together. She is the reason that my and your children are safer today. She is a big reason I fight to bring missing children home.”
In 2016, Rasmussen left the BCA to continue her work in child protection as Deputy Director at the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis. She helped set up protocols and policies to establish a culture and environment where children are safe and those who hurt children are held accountable.
Back to the AMBER Alert
Rasmussen was humbled when Jim Walters approached her to consider the AATTAP Administrator position, because she has worked with so many talented people who have been involved in the effort over the years. Walters not only recognized her passion for protecting children but also her experience in management, training, and technical assistance.
“The thought of any child suffering and any parent having to endure that pain forces me to work as hard as possible to look for strategies to do better for our children,” she said. “Every child deserves the right to grow up in a safe environment where they can learn, play, and live without being hurt. We need to work hard every day to make that happen.”
Rasmussen has been in her new position for a year. The AMBER Advocate asked her to reflect on that time and learn what she hopes to accomplish in the future.
You have been involved in the AMBER Alert program since the beginning–how do you think AMBER Alerts have changed the way we think about missing and abducted children?
AMBER Alert has brought attention and awareness to the public about the issue of missing and endangered children. Lawmakers recognize the significance of these events and have supported legislation that provides funding and resources for training and technical assistance for law enforcement. This training helps prepare officers to respond to a child abduction. We have supported law enforcement and their partners across the U.S. to establish Child Abduction Response Teams (CARTs). AATTAP’s training and resources have ensured CARTs are carefully and comprehensively informed, trained, and positioned to do the important work to sustain their programs. And for teams who choose to pursue US-DOJ-AATTAP Certification, we guide that process, helping them prepare for certification, and performing rigorous assessment onsite in coordination with CART program leadership and participating agencies. This solid framework sets CART programs on the path to maintain certification via an annual recertification process AATTAP designed and administers.
It is never a good thing for a law enforcement agency to realize the critical importance of readiness to respond to missing and abducted child incidents for the first time during an actual event. This in and of itself has changed the way we think today. We also know that AMBER Alerts have thwarted many abductions. When an abductor sees the alert being broadcast and gets scared and drops the child off – that is a success. Most important, the AMBER Alert program has changed the way we work together, and strengthened the way we collaborate with others for one common good.
The AMBER Alert Program originally brought law enforcement and the media together to work in partnership. That collaboration quickly expanded to include departments of transportation. Today, the partnerships at work in AMBER Alert programs across the nation span pages in AMBER Alert plans and related information. So many organizations and companies want to support the AMBER Alert Program, including state lotteries, electronic billboard companies, truckers’ associations, and other stakeholders that post, share, and distribute information when an AMBER Alert occurs.
Reflecting upon your first year as the AATTAP Administrator, and what you’ve brought to the position from the successes and guidance of your predecessors, what do you think you uniquely bring to the AATTAP as its leader and ‘CEO’?
I am very fortunate to follow two previous AATTAP Administrators whose passion and diligent work in protecting children I greatly respect. I feel my work as an AMBER Alert Coordinator brings a unique perspective to the program. I have done the same work as our state AMBER Alert Coordinators and Clearinghouse Managers and I know many of the unique issues they face. I also bring insight into working with victims and survivors, given my past work.
I have been blessed while growing up, and, in my career, to have mentors who have taught me to lead with compassion and dedication, with strength and persistence. I feel I bring leadership qualities that highlight that no one person can do this alone, but rather, it takes a team of individuals coming together to be successful. You must allow others to contribute, to lead, to add value, and share their strengths and expertise. Without this incredible support and strong partnerships, you will get nowhere; yet together you can accomplish great things. I know the best leaders aren’t the ones who know everything; they are the ones who continue to learn each day.
What do you think were the biggest successes for AATTAP in 2021? Is there a specific program event or accomplishment that stands out for you?
I have witnessed so many accomplishments. Overcoming the challenges and restrictions of COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our ability to continue providing our core services. With shutdowns and travel restrictions, our entire AATTAP team had to pivot rapidly – working incredibly hard to transition effectively from providing onsite training and technical assistance (T/TA) in the field, to 100% virtual delivery of T/TA events. That work constituted a complete shift of business processes, resource management, and how we work together.
Moreover, the readiness of our AMBER Alert partners across the nation to work with us in this ‘virtual journey,’ rapidly shifting from being on the road, in the field, to being fully ‘online,’ made all the difference. We have seen a great willingness to approach training and meetings in new ways, and have welcomed amazing participation with our events during the pandemic. All of us in AATTAP – and across our partner disciplines – learned that even as the world ‘shut down’, and with restrictions everywhere, children are still being abducted. Law enforcement still needs to respond. And we still need to provide our T/TA so they are prepared to respond.
We also held our first “virtual” AMBER Alert Symposium in 2021. The symposium had great attendance and important topics, and while we would have rather done this in person, it was a complete success. We had the technical support to accomplish what was needed and exceptional speakers, topics, and discussion rooms where participants could discuss and collaborate on those topics ‘face-to-face’ via our Zoom and Whova platform integration. We gleaned important takeaways from the event, and actively incorporated them into our 2nd virtual symposium held in March 2022. And with future events, we will ensure we continue to build an even greater array of content and engagement activities that fully represent our partner audiences.
Even with the symposium’s success, one of our biggest accomplishments was the first ever “virtual” Family Roundtable event. In the past, we brought together the families of missing and murdered children to learn from their experiences in-person to enhance our training. But with COVID-19 travel and gathering restrictions, that simply was not an option.
We were able to partner with Arizona State University to facilitate these discussions, through carefully designed and respectfully administered one-on-one virtual interviews.
We learned so much from this process, particularly that family members respond differently when they’re in the comfort of their own home. This is a safe place for them, which makes it easier for them to share more easily and openly. We have heard from some family members that the anxiety of traveling somewhere to talk about the most horrific event of their lives can be too much, and this format provided a better environment. So going forward, when restrictions are lifted, we will consider a combined approach to these events.
Will training go back to what it was before the pandemic? Or will it be a mixture of live-virtual training, self-paced eLearning, and classroom/onsite training?
We are continually evaluating each area of training we provide. We know our symposium is most effective in person because AMBER Alert Coordinators and Clearinghouse managers have an opportunity to more fully network and share information on cases, best practices, or issues they face in their states. I know first-hand from my past work the impact that relationship building has on the effectiveness of the program. From my relationship with the Utah AMBER Alert Coordinator that resulted in the successful recovery of a child abducted from Minnesota and taken to Utah, to cases involving Iowa, Wisconsin, Canada, and others – I know that relationships developed from working together prior to an abduction can have an incredible impact on the recovery of a missing child.
(From left): Janell Rasmussen with Tyesha Wood, Pamela Foster, and Chelsa Seciwa at an AMBER Alert in Indian Country event.
What are the major accomplishments of the AMBER Alert in Indian Country initiative since you joined the team? And what remains to be done?
We know our efforts in Indian Country have been successful, as we are witnessing children being safely recovered because of the issuance of AMBER Alerts. However, COVID-19 restrictions have made our work in carrying out T/TA established through the 2018 Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act very difficult. There are unique challenges, and in many cases outright barriers, to meeting virtually with tribal community members. Internet coverage, bandwidth and devices needed to connect virtually can be limited or altogether unavailable. This has impacted not only our training, but also our efforts to help tribes develop and implement their AMBER Alert Plans.
While this has been difficult, we continue to push forward where we can. We are working to combat these issues by providing specially designed Technology Toolkits for the tribes. These toolkits provide technology and resources to support the tribes’ ability to attend virtual events, and provide critically important resources for operational response when a child goes missing or is abducted in Indian Country. We look forward to providing the critical training needed in Indian Country in person.
We need to continue our work in Indian Country to ensure all tribes have access to the AMBER Alert program. If you have heard Pamela Foster, the warrior mother who led the grassroots efforts to establish AMBER Alert in Indian Country after her daughter Ashlynne’s abduction and murder, you know the importance of these efforts. Our endeavors moving forward are focused on the work that Pamela started – engaging tribal leaders and government officials across the country to implement AMBER Alert.
What are your top goals for strengthening AMBER Alert planning and strategy with our border countries Canada and Mexico?
We have been working virtually this past year with both Canada and Mexico. We have been successful in working with Canada on virtual training and meetings. We also held the first virtual training for Mexico and worked with a translation service. Over the next year, we plan to partner with the McCain Institute on our work related to sex trafficking in Mexico. We have reached out to the Vice President’s Office for assistance with the ‘Collaboration on Interagency Agreement with Mexico’ to help resolve more than 82,000 missing persons cases there. We also will use our past work, experience, and relationships with Mexican officials, and our established law enforcement training curricula, to continue training law enforcement in the country.
Additionally, we will continue to collaborate on the best plans of action and training for when children are taken across the border, in either direction, to respond with established protocols.
What will be important in the coming years for working with international AMBER Alert partners?
Our work with our international partners is incredibly important. We continue to collaborate with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) to provide training and technical assistance. We have learned our training is beneficial to our international partners, and in turn, we learn about different trends, best practices, and issues they are experiencing so we can collaboratively find solutions.
AATTAP’s work with human trafficking (HT) and child sex trafficking (CST) in training related to endangered missing and at-risk youth has grown over the years. How do you see this continuing to evolve as AATTAP works to ensure law enforcement understand the risk factors, investigative processes, and critically-important victim needs in the future?
We have former Dallas Police Department Child Sex Trafficking experts Byron Fassett and Cathy De La Paz on our AATTAP team. They provide us with a unique opportunity to incorporate these topics into our training and technical assistance areas where appropriate. This is an area that continues to grow and we will provide all T/TA requested, and partner on plans to combat CST.
What do you hope can be accomplished in 2022 for both AATTAP and AIIC?
Our focus throughout 2022 is to develop action plans that will result in the greatest success for safely recovering missing and abducted children. We recently began the “50 state” initiative in which we are working with each state AMBER Alert team to review existing plans and discuss ways we can provide resources to help improve plans, processes, and programs. These meetings have been critical during a time when we have not been able to work together in person. The need to continually evaluate our programs at a state and national level is crucial to the AMBER Program’s growth, success, and effectiveness.