MIL-OSI Security: Supporting Victims in Missing Children Cases

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Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI Crime News

Our Victim Services Division provides support to child victims and witnesses of federal crimes, as well as their families and loved ones, through investigative forensic interviews and coordination with victim specialists who ensure all parties receive the proper care when faced with devastating challenges. The team is trained to ensure that any interactions with child victims or witnesses are tailored to the child’s stage of development and to minimize any additional trauma to the child.

A missing child is someone whose whereabouts became unknown when they were aged 17 or younger. Victim Services Division personnel often support these cases even as time progresses and the victim who went missing as a child may have grown into an adult. Regardless of how the child initially went missing, victim specialists work with families and loved ones, as well as victims who have been found. 

“That family is missing their child during crisis. We would respond the same to that family,” explained Jennifer Piero, a victim specialist at the FBI Cleveland Field Office. “If the FBI were involved in the case or asked by a police department to become involved, we would immediately start providing the family with updates and any services we can provide, as well as crisis intervention.”

Victim specialists work with the families throughout the investigation—no matter how long—and are often present during a victim’s recovery.

When victim specialists are assigned a case, they immediately start working with FBI agents, task force officers, and local law enforcement to meet the missing child’s family. These first interactions are the foundations for building trust with the families. The victim specialist looks into the following: 

  • Who are the missing child’s relatives? 
  • Are there siblings, and, if so, are they juveniles? 
  • Which family members should be interviewed for background information?

“Siblings may know different things than parents, so we have to look at setting up child interviews with our child and adolescent forensic interviewers, or CAFIs. The CAFIs gather information they might know, such as whether they might have witnessed anything the missing child had done or somebody they had talked to before disappearing,” said Piero. 

“Then there are the assessments of the parents that the agents are working on to ensure that a parent is not potentially involved in the child’s disappearance,” continued Piero. “Once they’ve ruled out that possibility, we continue to work with the family. We coordinate communication with the agents to ensure the family is the first to receive updates about the case.”

Victim specialists also assess whether initial crisis intervention and counseling services are needed and ensure those resources are provided. As the investigation develops, victim specialists will work with FBI public affairs and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to alert the public about the missing child and ask for help finding them. 

One of NCMEC’s vital roles includes creating age-progressed photos of the victim. These photos are shared on NCMEC’s website and FBI missing person posters and disseminated to law enforcement and media outlets.

“We obtain photos of the victim’s family members—mom, the dad, any family members—to provide an image of what that child might look like at an older age,” said Piero. “Once NCMEC creates that image, we take it to the family and have them give us some critiques or say what they think might be different, because they know their child best.”

And as victim specialists help agents and task force offers gather and share information related to the case, they are simultaneously developing plans for if and when a victim is found and reunited with their family to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible. Some items to consider include: 

  • What are the logistics for reuniting the victim with their family? 
  • What are the logistics to ensure the victim receives medical assistance?  
  • What is the plan to help mitigate interactions with the community and the press? 

For instance, events like large celebratory gatherings and homecomings immediately after a successful recovery—though often well-intentioned—may be too overwhelming for the victim and their families at that time. Victim specialists will help manage these scenarios. In one case, victim specialists helped arrange the first reunification between the victim and their family at a location outside their town so they could have some privacy before facing the general public and media.

“We want to mitigate any types of secondary trauma, making sure that people aren’t asking the victim questions that are not victim sensitive,” said Catherine Connell, unit chief of the Child Victim Services Unit. 

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