Clearinghouse: Behind the Scenes Support
How help from the NYS Missing Persons Clearinghouse keeps a case from going cold.
By ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
Rhonda Jean Leonard called the New York State Missing Persons Clearinghouse on June 20, 2007 for help. She said her 6-year-old daughter, R.J., had been taken from their home in Jamestown, New York, six months earlier by the girl’s great aunt on her mother’s side and the great aunt’s son. Leonard told the Clearinghouse that she had trouble getting the police to take a missing person report.
The Clearinghouse staff swung into action on Leonard’s behalf. They persuaded local police to open up a case and investigative. They recorded and followed through with every lead, even those that went nowhere. Eventually, the Federal Bureau of Investigations declared R.J. a missing child and issued arrest warrants for the great aunt and boyfriend.
In 2009, a Texas Department of Public Safety investigator vacationing in Mexico spotted a girl begging for food door-to-door. The investigator was worried about the child, so he took her picture and passed it along to the Mexico Attorney General’s Office, which matched the photo against files of missing children.
The girl was R.J. Myers, then 8.
New York City accounted for nearly one-third of missing children reports in 2013.
New York State Missing Children Reports
New York City Missing Children Reports
Local police took her great aunt and the great aunt’s son into custody and charged them with international parental kidnapping. (They were sentenced to three years in prison in 2010). Meyers was reunited with her mother, thanks to the help of the Missing Persons Clearinghouse.
Since 1987, the Missing Persons Clearinghouse, housed within the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, works behind the scenes to help investigators and families find the missing. The Clearinghouse provides investigative support services that can often mean the difference between a case being solved or going cold, says Cindy Neff, program manager for the Missing Persons Clearinghouse.
“Time can be critical in these cases,” said Neff, who has been with the Clearinghouse for 10 years.
Motion graphic by Aliza Chasan
The Missing Persons Clearinghouse has issued …
Amber Alerts since 2003
Missing Child/College Student Alerts since 2003
Missing Vulnerable Adult Alerts since 2011
The Typical Day
Clearinghouse case managers, many with a law enforcement background, assist police and “left behind” families — relatives who have a loved one missing — in several different ways. They:
- Issue alerts for missing children, college students and vulnerable adults.
- Maintain and review New York’s missing person database.
- Provide as-needed case assistance for at-risk missing people.
- Flag birth and school records of missing children.
- Help families get police and legal assistance, conduct social media and database searches and navigate community programs and support groups.
In addition to working on active cases, the Clearinghouse offers police training on search and rescue tactics, how to use its alert system and what resources are available to find missing individuals. Since 2011, the Clearinghouse has trained more than 4,000 people on how to use its Missing Alert system, according to New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services spokesman Walter McClure.
The Clearinghouse also maintains a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline. Most calls received are leads on missing person cases, family members or police looking for help, or from public workers requesting flagged records. Even though the bulk of the Clearinghouse’s work is administrative, case managers still get overwhelmed emotionally by the work they do, Neff says. Clearinghouse members experience stress from being on-call 24-7, which can sometimes intrude on their personal lives, she says. They also share grief when a missing person in a case they’re working on is found dead — “Especially difficult when it is a child,” said Neff — and relief when a missing person is recovered.
A guide to understanding how the NYPD responds to cases.
BY KANYAKRIT VONGKIATKAJORN
The New York Police Department is often a New Yorker’s first resource for reporting a missing persons case. Here’s how the NYPD responds to a missing persons case, from start to finish, and the best way to seek help. Read more.
The Alert System
The Clearinghouse issues alerts, at police request, for three groups: missing children and college students who do not meet the criteria for AMBER alert activation, and vulnerable adults who have a mental disability, cognitive impairment or brain disorder. These alerts, which are active for 72 hours, are issued when the missing child or person is considered at risk of serious injury or death, even if abduction has not occurred.
Police, media outlets, hospitals, and transportation hubs such as airports electronically receive Clearinghouse alerts within minutes of activation, according to McClure. The alerts are also distributed through New York State All-Hazards Alert and Notification — or NY-Alert — system, he says.
Since a certain level of endangerment is the threshold for an alert to be triggered, the number of issued Clearinghouse alerts is often far lower than the number of people reported missing in the state, says Neff. In 2013, the Clearinghouse activated seven missing children alerts and 36 missing vulnerable adult alerts, according to the agency’s latest annual report.
Thirty-one of 75 vulnerable adult alerts issued last year contributed to safe recoveries, McClure says.
“Knowing that the alerts are assisting with locating an endangered person is very gratifying and rewarding,” said Neff.
This year, the Clearinghouse will launch new programs to help solve cases faster. Among them is the Find Them web application, which provides police with tips and resources to finding a missing person based on a set of circumstances, including age, health and how they went missing.
And the Clearinghouse is rolling out Project Lifesaver, a personal tracking device developed by Project Lifesaver International, a non-profit dedicated to finding at-risk children and adults with disabilities or chronic illnesses. At-risk individuals enrolled in the program wear the device on a wrist or ankle. If they go missing, their local Project Lifesaver center will dispatch an emergency team to find the enrollee using the tracking signal, which is transmitted via radio frequency.
The Clearinghouse will pilot the program by giving the Project Lifesaver equipment to 34 agencies in five counties. Those agencies can then provide the tracking devices to vulnerable adults enrolled in the program. The Clearinghouse will also train agencies on Project Lifesaver’s use.
The New York City Police Department is expected to receive the technology from the Clearinghouse in June.
Photo by Levi Sharpe