By the FBI's count, U.S. police departments reported more than 662,000 lost, runaway or kidnapped children to state and federal authorities during 2005. And according to research published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2006, among young people ages 10 to 17 who go online, approximately one of every seven has received a sexual solicitation of some type over the Internet.

Whether a family is reporting a missing child or improper contact between an adult and child, usually the first point of communication is a public safety call-taker. To make sure that agencies collect all the information they need when a child is in danger, NCMEC has teamed with several other organizations to produce a guide for those telecommunications professionals. The publication, Model Policy and Best-Practice Guide for Call-Takers When Handling Calls Pertaining to Missing and Sexually Exploited Children, came out last summer.

As part of this effort to develop standard procedures for taking reports of missing and sexually exploited children, NCMEC also is expanding its educational programs to reach more public safety telecommunications professionals.

NCMEC's partners in the program are the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED) and the AMBER Alert Program of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Most public safety answering points (PSAPs) already have policies for handling calls of this type, and when they developed the guide, the partners weren't responding to particular inadequacies, said Michelle Moore, project manager for the initiative at NCMEC in Alexandria, Va. The goal simply was to make sure that call-takers throughout the country gather information in a uniform way, she said. “It's just a guideline, to help people in case they need some assistance.”

“There are 109 public safety answering points in the state of Connecticut alone. So depending on where you are, you could have 109 different ways of handling that call,” said Frank Kiernan, director of emergency communications for Meriden, Conn., and a member of APCO's standards development committee.

“We wanted to ensure that all public safety answering points are using consistent protocols for handling these types of calls,” added Sonya Lopez-Clauson, public information officer with the Greater Harris County, Texas, 911 center, who represented NENA's Public Awareness Committee on the project.

The biggest reason call-takers need a step-by-step guide has to do with the content of the calls themselves, said Bob Smith, director of communications center and 911 services for APCO. “Probably the most high-tension, emotional call types that we take are those calls that involve children as victims,” he said.

Kiernan agreed that taking a call about a possible crime involving a child could be a traumatic experience. “And there are things that can be missed. So having a policy like this, where the dispatcher can open it up and read right off it, you don't miss anything,” he said.

The guide provides lists of questions for taking several different kinds of reports. For missing children, it includes guidelines for reports involving: a child who has been abducted, either by a family member or non-family member; a child who is lost, injured or otherwise missing; and a child who has run away or been “thrown away” — deserted, kicked out of the home or otherwise abandoned by the caretaker.

For cases of possible sexual exploitation, it provides questions for a person reporting: child pornography, child sexual molestation, child victims of prostitution, online enticement of children for sexual acts and a child who may be with an adult companion met on the Internet.

Reports about child pornography or sexual enticement on the Internet pose a special challenge for call-takers because when a crime occurs in cyberspace, it can be hard to establish jurisdiction. “It's something that people know a little bit less about than missing children,” Moore said.

The guide directs call-takers to report all incidents of child sexual exploitation to NCMEC's CyberTipLine, which is supported by the federal government and corporate donors. When exploitation occurs on the Internet, the NCMEC works with federal, state and local officials to determine which law enforcement agency should handle the case, Moore said.

A work group composed of representatives from the partner agencies developed the call-takers' guide by walking through every step of the process. Smith detailed the steps: “What does a call-taker have to know in advance? What do they have to ask the caller? What do they have to relay to the responders that are on the way to the call? And what can they do after the responders are on the scene to facilitate the actual investigation?”

Along with procedures for taking a report, the group included information that the call-taker should have on hand in advance, such as the phone number for the NCMEC, instructions for activating an AMBER Alert and procedures for getting information into the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, Smith said.

Since the guide was published last summer, APCO has been working to make it a voluntary national standard for call-takers. As part of that process, the document was put out for public review and comment from Oct. 26 through Dec. 10, 2007.

The guide is not meant to override policies that agencies already have developed to cover these calls, Smith said. Rather, it offers a supplement to help where agencies might have gaps and to provide a starting point for agencies with no policies at all. “We do directly defer to the agencies that already have policies in place,” he said.

But if the guide were to become a national standard, a call-taker wouldn't have to lose precious minutes figuring out what to ask when talking with distraught family members, Smith said. “It will eliminate any tendency to fly by the seat of your pants.” That, in turn, will get first responders on the case more quickly.

“The dispatcher will be able to run through a whole battery of questions and get a lot of information from the reporting person prior to an officer even getting on the scene,” said Kiernan, a former police officer.

Rather than start with a nearly blank slate upon arrival, the officer will show up already in possession of the details. This information might even help a police officer spot a missing child or a perpetrator's car while en route. Detectives and other law enforcement personnel who hear the dispatcher relay this information over the radio also might spot something useful, Kiernan said.

Since the guide's release, the partner agencies have been promoting it at their national conferences and other events and posting it on their Web sites. A shorter version of the guide also is being produced, in the form of a checklist that call-takers can keep at their desks, Moore said.

As part of the broader effort to better prepare 911 call-takers, NCMEC recently opened a two-day course on the subject to a wider audience. The CEO Overview Course, originally designed for sheriffs and chiefs of police, is now available as well to PSAP managers and directors.

“It included a lot of valuable information about the [NCMEC], a lot of background about missing children — the specifics, for instance, about family abduction and non-custodial abduction — as well as a lot of policy issues and law enforcement-type issues,” said Lopez-Clauson, who has taken the training.

To help build an audience for the course, which is free of charge, the partners have been running a pilot outreach program in Ohio, Florida, Maryland and Utah, said Bill Hinkle, director of the Hamilton County (Ohio) Department of Communications and chair of the joint committee that developed the call-takers' guide.

In those states, the partners are working to engage the state chapters of APCO and NENA, each of which will appoint a liaison to reach out to the state's 911 centers. “We're systematically inviting all the center managers to take the course at the National Center,” Hinkle said. The group also hopes to offer a one-day version of the training in the four pilot states and at the next annual meetings of APCO and NENA, he said.

PSAP managers and directors in other states are always welcome to enroll in the course and, eventually, the partners will extend outreach efforts to them as well, Hinkle said.

“We're also trying to do a Web-based training program for call-takers that will run two to three hours,” he said. “For centers that want more extensive training, we'll have a train-the-trainer program.”

The partners hope that if the guide becomes a national standard, it will become part of the basic training for new telecommunications professionals, Smith said. Its principles also could find their way into continuing education for experienced call-takers, he said.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that no case concerning a child in possible danger falls through the cracks, said Hinkle. “I've seen situations where a purse snatching gets a better response than a missing child,” he said. “We've become a little complacent. We're trying to change that complacency and reinforce our commitment.”

WHERE ARE THE KIDS?

797,500 Children reported missing in 2002.
135,800 Missing children cases with which NCMEC has helped law enforcement since 1984.
118,700+ Children recovered through those efforts.
261 AMBER Alerts activated in 2006.
370 Children recovered safely through AMBER Alerts since 1997.
about 1 in 7 Children ages 10—17 who received a sexual solicitation or otherwise approached over the Internet (2006 data).
4% Percentage of youth online who received an aggressive sexual solicitation — the solicitor asked to meet them, called them on the phone or sent them offline mail, money or gifts (2006 data).
519,300 Reports of child exploitation made to the CyberTipLine since 1998.
Source: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children