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Oct. 5, 2023

Why lawyers make great advocates for the families of missing children

Contrary to what we see on television, there is no waiting period to report a missing person. This includes a child that is illegally taken, held or hidden by a parent or non-parent.

M. Cris Armenta

Partner, Ellis George Cippollone O'Brien

California outranks every state in the nation in the number of persons reported missing each year. This includes a report of more than 2,000 missing children per year. Of the 2,122 persons reported as missing last year, only 13 were the subject of an Amber Alert. When a family learns they have a missing loved one, the fear, pain, and helplessness can be unimaginable. The feeling can be ever more overwhelming when the missing person is a child.

In 1997, I was asked by an employee who worked in the mailroom of my law firm to find his missing two-year old son. He had been missing for 6 weeks. We knew very little about the abductor. We had only one clue that would help us find the child. The non-custodial mother was reputed to dance in a strip club under the stage name “Felony.” After searching seemingly every dance establishment in Los Angeles, we found her two weeks later. Armed with a court order and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies in tow, the child was retrieved and returned to his family. His little toddler hair had been buzzed, he was wearing gang attire, his ears were pierced, and he was living with known gang members. The family had no resources to pay, nor did I ask for payment. The moment of finding the child and being able to return him to a safe, loving home was rewarding enough. The child is now an adult, has graduated college, and is a productive member of society.

The missing children that have come across my desk since 1997 have spanned race, gender, LGBTQ status and socio-economic status. There is no dividing line of race or economics. We have seen an uptick on runaways with the advance of the internet, which has provided a means for predators to reach and lure our children and teenagers. We saw an increase during and after COVID because of the isolation that we all experienced. Inquisitive teens, falling prey to deceptions, are sometimes then kidnapped, turned out for prostitution sex trafficking, and drug use. The incidence of runaways has grown in the LGBTQ community, with teens who feel rejected at home running away to disappear and then ending up in dangerous conditions, or homeless on the streets. The cases include abductions, runaways, suicide missions, and cases where the person disappears without seemingly leaving any clue. Where do lawyers fit into this crisis?

There is no waiting period to report a missing person. Despite laws designed to prevent any waiting period, families and parents, especially of teenagers, experience law enforcement discouraging the making of a report. Families are sometimes told that the child or adult is just voluntarily missing, or may have run off, and will be back. Or that since they are an adult and there is no evidence of any crime, there is nothing to be done, no crime to be solved, no room for law enforcement resources. This lag of time seriously harms any investigation. It also reveals that law enforcement is not taking the report seriously. Contrary to what we see on television, there is no waiting period to report a missing person. This includes a child that is illegally taken, held or hidden by a parent or non-parent. Cal. Penal Code § 277.280. When a missing person under the age of 21 is reported missing to local law enforcement, federal law requires that report be provided to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) within two hours of receipt of that report. 34 U.S.C. § 41307. This tool is significant because if the missing person crosses the path of any law enforcement officer in the country and their information is run through their own local system, a NCIC report will provide an alert that the person has been reported missing. We have seen cases where the “hit” did not happen because the parent or family waited to make the report or was initially discouraged from doing so.

Families need an advocate, a bridge or even a push when dealing with law enforcement. Lawyers are trained advocates. We advocate in court, when negotiating a transaction, when writing briefs. In the missing person context, the lawyer’s advocacy skills are needed to talk with law enforcement, the press, neighbors, strangers, businesses, and anyone who might know something about the missing person or have information that would be helpful. Law enforcement can be tricky. When I located a woman who was listed on Montana’s Most Wanted for having abducted two young children from Australia, the tiny town brought their entire department of four officers and two squad cars to the site where the children were hidden. But, in large departments in larger cities, it can be hard for a parent to attract the attention and motivation of law enforcement. Lawyers with business cards get meetings, our phone calls get returned, and we can develop a rapport with law enforcement that is ultimately useful for the find. On the other hand, some departments need a strong push, wanting to discount the missing person as a voluntary missing, in defiance of the published standards for classification. The agency may not have or may refuse to dedicate the needed resources. They often lack the investigative skills or motivation to prioritize the missing, or training to understand that finding a missing person is not the same as finding a criminal defendant. The laws and the protocols are decidedly different. In January of 2022, we searched for a woman missing from Laguna Hills who had disappeared before Christmas in her Range Rover. Law enforcement in her area wrote her off, suggesting she had run off to have some fun. The involved department would not issue a Silver Alert, despite all the pushing that we did on her behalf and clear evidence of mental health issues. Using investigative resources, we eventually found her body in her vehicle in Los Angeles, without the help of law enforcement resources. The LAPD Coroner concluded the death was self-inflicted. While this was one case that ended tragically, the family at least had answers and closure.

The families need lawyers. Congress and many other nations have passed laws and entered into treaties specifically to assist in the recovery of missing persons and children. Cases where a child is abducted and taken to another country are called “outbound.” Cases where a child is abducted and brought to the United States are “inbound.” The multilateral treaty, Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, comes into play in these cases. California published its “Missing Persons Investigations, Guidelines & Curriculum” in May of 2021, which informs peace officers of all the laws, the steps that must be taken, and how missing persons are to be classified. Despite required training in this area, many law enforcement agencies are unfamiliar with the laws. A lawyer can provide the bridge, the training, and the advocacy to point to the relevant laws and guide the family and the involved agencies towards the appropriate actions, all designed for the purpose of finding the missing.

The work can help you with your basic litigation skills. As litigators, we learn much about the trades and industries of our clients in any given case. The work in finding missing children has added to a skill set that has been valuable when litigating my commercial cases. I have learned that our young people are more facile at searching through social media and how to save money for my clients when it comes to the best social media research. The work has given me insight into what data mobile carriers retain, such as GPS locations, historical text and data records, and how to access these records. The work has allowed me to build alliances with police departments, federal law enforcement agencies, volunteers, and the best way to approach them, which is sometimes needed in our commercial litigation cases. The work has given me practice in interviewing witnesses and letting them tell me their truths or beliefs about the situation that led to the crisis.

The reward of the work is immeasurable. The moment of being able to tell a parent that you have found their missing child is beyond imagination. You have shaped a future, a family, and saved a child or more from harm or an unknown destiny. The work itself is the reward, but the joy that comes from being able to use your lawyer skills, creativity, and advocacy in this manner is beyond explanation.


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