MOUNT VERNON — Your spouse or child who is usually prompt, is extremely late returning from work or school. Your daughter didn’t show up for softball practice. Your aging parent doesn’t return from a quick trip to the store. Your ne’er-do-well brother doesn’t show up to mooch a free meal for at least a week. All could be perfectly innocent; all could be early indicators of a mishap or abduction.
The question becomes: When do you notify law enforcement about a possible missing person case?
The answer to that varies, depending on past behavior, health, age and other factors.
“Each situation is different,” said Mount Vernon Police Capt. George Hartz. “The spouse who is late getting home may have simply forgotten to say she was meeting friends for dinner. But the same thing could be a person who has disappeared.”
In some cases, law enforcement can act quickly. For example, a family member with dementia wanders off and can’t be found, police can act quickly.
However, for most cases that don’t involve any evidence of abduction or violence, there are no hard and fast rules about when to call. The best advice he can offer, Hartz said, is that it doesn’t hurt to call and ask.
A report of a missing child will generally spark quicker action, said Knox County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Dave Shaffer.
“We’re obligated to enter a missing child report into the LEADS system within 12 hours,” Shaffer said. “A lot of times, we’ll have to cancel the LEADS entry an hour or two later when the child shows up.”
Hartz confirmed that, saying many juvenile reports they take are quickly canceled, because the child showed up.
“It’s just part of doing business,” he said. In fact, he said, probably 90 percent of reports they take turn out to not be missing persons.
When children are missing, there is also the possibility of issuing an Amber Alert, which draws extra attention to the case, but that requires special circumstances. Not all missing juveniles qualify for an Amber Alert.
“In the years I have been a captain (five), I don’t think I’ve ever issued an Amber Alert,” Hartz said. The bar is set high, he said, because they don’t want people to become complacent about Amber Alerts.
The U.S. Department of Justice has specific recommendations for issuing an alert:
•Law enforcement has confirmed that an abduction has taken place. Stranger abductions are the most dangerous for children and are the primary mission of an Amber Alert. Since such situations are not always certain, law enforcement is urged to use a “best judgment” approach based on the evidence.
•The child is at risk for serious bodily harm or death. Again, law enforcement is urged to assess the situation based on timely, accurate information based on clearly understood criteria, but keeping in mind the best judgment approach.
•The law enforcement agency must have enough information to believe that an immediate broadcast to the public will enhance the efforts to locate the child and apprehend the abduction suspect.
•At a minimum, the child must be under age 17, but the age for using the alerts varies from state to state.
•The child’s name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction Flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center.
Adults present a more complex situation.
“Adults can make the choice to disappear,” Shaffer said. Knowledge of the state of a person’s physical or mental health will help law enforcement evaluate a case.
And before calling law enforcement, family members can help by checking with friends or at known hangouts.
Law enforcement is going to ask about all those things, Shaffer said. If they’ve been checked off they can concentrate on other possibilities.
If they suspect foul play, law enforcement must report the case in a National Police Database within seven days. If there is no suspicion of foul play, law enforcement has 30 days to enter the case in the database.
That’s the provision of “Jonathan’s Law,” which was enacted in 2007 because of a case in Knox County. Jonathan Sheasby was missing for 83 days before his body was found in Morgan Township. He had been shot several times.
Both Shaffer and Hartz said getting the word out about disappearances is important. Information will be put out on the LEADS network, and if there is evidence a person might be headed for a specific community, that community will be contacted.
Locally, Hartz said, when they have a missing person case, dispatchers at the police call center will immediately let the county dispatchers and the Ohio Highway Patrol know.
“Communication is important,” Hartz said. Included in that is keeping a family up to date on search efforts, and vice versa, the family letting police know if someone who has been missing, shows up.
It has happened, Hartz said, that in reporting to a family about efforts to find someone, the family has said, “Oh, he came home,” but they hadn’t told the police.