Panoramic image of a 2023 Symposium meeting

Collage of images from the 2023 National AATTAP-AIIC Symposium

By Denise Gee Peacock

“It’s fitting, these images,” said Pascua Yaqui Tribal Councilman Francisco Munoz, pointing to a colorful depiction of Arizona life—one of many created by Salt River Elementary School students that wafted across a giant screen. “Children view the world totally different than we do—through magical eyes. And they need our assistance.”

Munoz was speaking to more than 150 law enforcement professionals who came from nearly every state in the nation—plus Puerto Rico and Mexico—to attend the 2023 AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program and AMBER Alert in Indian Country National Symposium.

The event, held April 19-20 at the Casino Del Sol Resort & Casino in Tucson, Arizona, was made possible by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. To support robust participation, lodging scholarships were made available to Tribal participants with funding from the McCain Institute. And hospitality was provided to attendees by the resort’s owners, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

AATTAP Administrator Janell Rasmussen quote: "We all know about the cases that have been solved, and children who've been found, because of the relationships formed here."Thank you for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our nation’s children,” said OJJDP Associate Administrator Jim Antal. “Your job is not easy, but it’s a worthwhile one.”

The occasion marked the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic that law enforcement officers, AMBER Alert Coordinators, Missing Persons Clearinghouse Managers, Child Abduction Response Team (CART) leaders, and other key partners were able to meet in person for collaborative learning.

Attendees had their pick of 36 learning sessions presented by  more than three dozen subject  matter experts. They received  updates from U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, Gary N. Restaino, whose Office works with 22 federally recognized Tribes (including the  nation’s largest, the Navajo Nation). Participants also heard from Marlys Big Eagle, the DOJ’s first Native  American Outreach Services Liaison —and a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

What follows is an overview of key topics addressed at the event, with participants’ compelling thoughts about them.

Alerting and Investigating

  • NCIC entry is essential. “Nothing is more important than nationwide accessibility to essential and timely records about the event, the child, and the abductor. That’s why NCIC entry is federally mandated,” said AATTAP Region One Liaison Joan Collins, a law enforcement telecommunications expert who recently retired after three decades with the Rhode Island State Police.
  • Follow the leads management system. After conducting a live polling session via participants’ cell phones, retired FBI Special Agent David Fallon found that  73% of attendees had not used a leads management system. “Without one, you’ll be behind the eight ball,” he said. The best systems have a lead assignment log; lead sheet with the lead number; the date information was received and assigned; its priority; the assigned investigator; the information source; related task(s), completion(s), and  their follow-up status.
  • “Don’t be in a homicide frame of mind.” That’s the important lesson El Paso Police Department Sergeant David Camacho learned from Mike Simonds, the on-call sergeant (since retired) who investigated the Amber Hagerman case in 1996. “Race to safely recover the children in peril; then focus on justice for the perpetrator.”
  • Ensure a recovered child returns to a safe environment. “Look at the big picture. How many 911 calls have come from the child’s house, or domestic violence reports that mention the child?” said Cindy Neff, Missing Persons Clearinghouse Manager for the New York State Division of Criminal Services.
  • Neff shared an eight-question screening tool for use in beginning important conversations:
    1. What made you want to leave home?
    2. How long have you been away?
    3. Who have you been staying with?
    4. Did someone touch you?
    5. Do you have health issues?
    6. Has anyone hurt you or tried to hurt you while you were gone?
    7. Are you afraid for your safety or the safety of someone else?
    8. Do you have someone you can talk to at home or school?

Child Abduction Response Teams

  • Having a CART is smart. “By being CART-certified, you’re telling your community, the missing child’s parents, even the nation, that your team is ready,” said Yesenia “Jesi” Leon-Baron, AATTAP CART Certification Manager. “Training and certification make child recovery much more successful.”
  • CARTs can deploy for any type of missing child incident, not only for abductions, which represent less than 1% of children who go missing, said Derek VanLuchene, AATTAP Coordinator for CART training.
  • CART training for Tribal law enforcement is a goal for many in Indian Country.Take 5: Tech-Savvy Takeaways Consider five overlooked research tools and techniques to use when seeking a missing child or suspected abductor-shared during the Symposium by retired California Highway Patrol Sergeant/emergency alerting expert Eddie Bertola: • Information databases, including LexisNexis Accruint, which offers a free phone number lookup tool and robust, multi-dimensional data for investigating people and companies (plus real-time alerts on specific subjects) and geolocation analysis; and credit score companies, which can tell you if someone has recently applied for a credit card or loan. • Vehicle manufacturers’ support­software data (e.g., OnStar, Honda Link). "Don't let OnStar tell you they can't find a vehicle because the owner hasn't paid for a subscription. They can find it," Bertola said. “Keep asking.” The vehicle's insurer and lien holder may also be able to provide assistance. • Subscription-based music/news streaming services such as Sirius XM, which can track a vehicle even if the owner does not subscribe to the service-using the embedded technology to do so. • Non-traditional banking companies (Venmo, Apple Pay, PayPal). "Unlike when people pay with cash, the use of these services leaves digital trails," he said. • Businesses’ facial recognition software used by Walmart, McDonald’s, Walgreens, Starbucks, and many others, to tailor advertisements in real-time to customers near to, or visiting, their stores.

Marlys Big Eagle—the first Native American Outreach Services Liaison for the U.S. Department of Justice—speaks to Symposium attendees.Indian Country

  • Savanna’s Act guidelines are being developed  and implemented for use in missing and murdered Indigenous persons (MMIP) case protocols training, said U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Gary N. Restaino. After conducting listening sessions with the state’s Tribes, Restaino and his team are focusing on respectfully preserving physical and cultural remains; involving a broader group of family members in investigation updates; and ensuring procedural due process.
  • AIIC Technology Toolkits, launched  in spring 2022 have been making their way to Tribal law enforcement agencies across the country. Funded by the U.S. DOJ and administered by the AIIC, the kits provide an array of portable devices allowing Tribal officers to quickly communicate data involving missing children while working in remote locations. And now, thanks to AIIC’s work with FirstNet (in partnership with AT&T), the toolkits include  a Franklin A50 WiFi hotspot device and six months of free AT&T service. And $75,000 has been allocated for select Tribes to receive additional toolkits.
  • PL280 challenges: Northern California’s Yurok Tribe is a Public Law (PL) 280 state, one of only six in the nation that puts criminal jurisdiction solely in the hands of state, or federal law enforcement. “This hinders a Tribe’s ability to directly respond to, or access data about, crimes that occur on their lands, such as abductions of Native American children or the sexual trafficking or exploitation of Tribal youth,” said Yurok Tribal Prosecutor Brie Bennett. But the  Tribe has found workarounds. It recently joined forces with the U.S. Marshals for  an MMIP-focused initiative.

Border/International Collaboration

  • Relationship building is key: El Paso  Police Department Sergeant David Camacho credits the strong partnership that Texas law enforcement and U.S. federal agencies have established with Mexican law enforcement and Mexico’s Office of the Attorney General, which oversees its Alerta AMBER. “We’ve established a healthy working relationship with Mexico when it comes to searching for U.S. citizens. “Their officers meet with us quarterly to bread together, and ensure contacts are current.”
  • So is swift communication: “Since many agencies can’t make international phone calls without permission, we’ve found the WhatsApp tool very helpful,” Comacho said. “You can plug in any number in the world and be instantly connected.”

Quote from U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona: "Arizona is committed to talking more about implicit bias. We need to overcome any obstacles to getting the word out about missing children—and focus on rescuing them."Bias in Alerting Decisions

  • Re-thinking the term ‘runaway’: Chitimacha Tribal Police Captain Jada Breaux of Louisiana noted that children categorized as runaways “should be seen as 1) missing and 2) at risk of exploitation,” adding, “Chronic runaways often get lost in the system—or not even put into the system.” Program Manager Byron Fassett agreed: “I would argue that we should no longer even use the term.”
  • “A lot of officers think sex trafficking victims volunteered to be abused,”  said Region 3 Liaison Sarah Krebs-Qureshi. “They’ll say, ‘She was making good money,’ or ‘She’s an entrepreneur.’ And I’ll say, ‘No, she’s a victim. And even if she did get herself into a bind, it’s our responsibility to rescue her.”

Outreach and Understanding

  • Trust is earned: Black communities have a lot of mistrust about law enforcement, said Texas AAC Mike Nixon. That leads them to try to solve a missing child incident themselves—with parents calling their child’s friends, other family members, the child’s school, pastor, or barber to ask for help. “We need to take more initiative to get into these communities, build trust, and educate them about the need to act quickly so we can help recover their child safe.”
  • Be OK with discomfort: In working with Tribal or minority communities, “You will be uncomfortable constantly,” said North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Erin Quinn. “You’re showing up to meetings where you were not invited. You’re showing up to places where people will stare at you. So cultural liaisons should be outgoing enough to overcome that.”


  • Mental health counseling should be “like an annual physical, which no one questions the need for,” said one participant. Though symposium attendees believe things are changing for the better, unfortunately some command staff see an officer who asks for help as unfit for duty. “Truth is, all the terrible things we’ve seen never leave our heads,” said Texas Region 2 AAC John Graham. “But if someone mentions they’re struggling, it can be a career-ender.”
  • This subject hits home, and hard, for one Symposium presenter. For Pete Bailey, the suicide of his Dallas Police Department partner led the DPD Sergeant to earn a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling after his retirement. “Everyone has different stress points; it’s important to be a ‘subject matter expert’ on yourself,” he said.

NCMEC Updates

Dr. John Bischoff, Vice President for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Missing Children Division (NCMEC), shared some alerting updates:

  • A redesigned poster will soon launch. Expect mobile design-friendly posters with bigger pictures and pared-down descriptive language; a QR code leading to their website, with more details about the child (such as height, weight, and eye color; and ways to make the poster easier to share on social media. “We want to make it clear what we want the public to actually do,” Bischoff said.
  • Watch for a streaming service. NCMEC is working with Walmart and others to have large monitors prominently display digital posters of missing children updated in real-time.

Leemie Kahng-Sofer, NCMEC’s Director of Case Management, shared several reporting trends:

  • Children missing from care comprised more than 75% of total endangered runaway reports to NCMEC from 2018-2022, representing a 250% increase.
  • Black and Native American children are disproportionately over-represented among missing children reported to NCMEC compared to U.S. Census data. Of all the NCMEC Endangered Runaway intakes from 2016 to 2020, 31% of the children were Black, despite 14% of the U.S. population being Black; 1.5% of were Native American, though only .8% of the population is Native American; and 10% were Multiracial, compared to 4% of U.S. Census representation.
  • Regarding missing children with autism, 2,496 cases were reported to NCMEC from 2013-2022, with 74% of them involving a male juvenile. And of those total cases, 3% were recovered deceased, with 83% of those deaths due to drowning.

Symposium-goers get preview of new Family Survival Guide

Cover of "When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide" with link to website: updated and multimedia fifth edition of the U.S. Department  of Justice resource, When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, was officially announced on Missing Children’s Day, held May 24, 2023, in Washington DC. But during the Symposium, participants were shown  a video of the Guide’s parent-contributors, who spoke about the power of the resource—for them  and for others.

“This Guide is critical to the work each of you do in  the field,” AATTAP Administrator Janell Rasmussen told attendees. “When you’re working with families, it’s nice to give them a resource explaining what they can expect, and what they do, to help in the search for their missing child,” she added.

Symposium participants also heard from a legend in the field of child protection: Ron Laney, a retired OJJDP veteran who was instrumental in not only creating the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, but also the national AMBER Alert initiative.

Quote from OJJDP/NCMEC/AMBER Alert veteran Ron Laney: "The Family Survival Guide is one of the most critical resources ever developed by the Department of Justice."Laney helped create the first edition of the Guide in 1998 by teaming up with Helen Connelly (retired FVTC Program Administrator and current NCJTC Associate) and a small group of dedicated parents, including Patty Wetterling and Colleen Nick, who also contributed to the new fifth edition.

The original Guide was the first of its kind, offering clear, actionable information on how parents of missing children could work with law enforcement, the media, and volunteers; manage donations and rewards; and simply survive to fight another day in the search for their child. It became a go-to source for parents needing guidance and strength.

The Guide’s new iteration, which has been peer-reviewed by leading law enforcement experts and child/victim advocates, will build on that legacy by offering updated advice and information in easy to navigate online and print formats.