Expert Volunteers Hunt Missing Kids

Police lack of coordination lets 9,000 cases a year fall between the cracks

DESPITE an intense national focus on missing children - like milk-carton photos and TV programs - up to 9,000 of the estimated 1.4 million cases a year remain unsolved.

The problem, say law enforcement experts, is that the nation's 17,000 police agencies have their hands full with other crimes.

Barbara Harless's was one such case. And from it came the recent formation of a Justice Department volunteer program - PROJECT ALERT: America's Law Enforcement Retiree Team - aimed at sealing up the cracks these cases fall into.

Mrs. Harless spent a frustrating year trying and failing to get law enforcement officials to find her three children, spirited away by their father in late 1990.

She tried her local police in Winchester, Ind.; various private detectives; and 14 different child-finding organizations, but was unable to track down her husband, who in fact had committed no criminal act in taking their children.

Not until she found John Libonati, who focused all his energy on the case - including the intensive work of getting multiagency cooperation in tracking down the car registrations of her husband and his family in several states - were the children found.

"When John started, there was a difference [in progress] within hours," she says, with a snap of her fingers.

Mr. Libonati is a United States Secret Service agent pulled into the case when he was working for US Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York on a fellowship. Mrs. Harless's sister wrote a letter to the senator begging for help, and Libonati was turned loose on the case. Within weeks he had solved the case and come up with a new idea for how to solve more cases.

"I used traditional investigative methods with six or seven state agencies.... I didn't find [the children], they [the agencies] did, with my coordination. The case served as a model for what can be done," says Special Agent Libonati.

Seeing the lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies and the basic lack of investigative skill and manpower in the smaller police departments (70 percent of all US police departments have less than 10 people on staff), Libonati proposed PROJECT ALERT. He envisioned tapping the investigative expertise among the nation's retired law-enforcement officials.

The first 11 volunteers in the program - from a retired Indiana sheriff to a 32-year-old New York Police Department detective - were just announced by Justice and Treasury Department officials. Volunteers, expected soon to number in the hundreds, will be signed on and trained by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in Arlington, Va. This nonprofit agency operates under congressional mandate in cooperation with the US Department of Justice.

When a local agency has a missing-child case, it will request a volunteer from the center, explains Ernie Allen, president of NCMEC. The project's $200,000 in federal funding will pay for travel for on-site consultation.

Small police agencies often have never even had a case of a missing child, explains John Walsh, an NCMEC board member and national child advocate whose own son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered. "They readily admit they don't know what to do.... They're overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid."

If asked early enough in a case, Mr. Walsh explains, PROJECT ALERT volunteers can offer expert assistance in searching for clues while they are fresh. They'll help coordinate search efforts that can involve many agencies beyond the local one, such as the FBI and officials in many separate states, he says.

Mr. Walsh explains that the volunteers will also provide an important educational function. Many local police aren't aware of clearinghouses where the details of cases are registered on computer. Clearinghouses now exist in 43 states but are still not widely used or known about, says Walsh, who has long lobbied for a federal mandate that all missing-child cases immediately be registered on a national computer system.

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