Even if you’re not a fan of Fox’s successful prime time drama, Empire, you’re likely aware of the name Jussie Smollett by now. Smollett has come under fire in the media and on the internet for his allegedly false account of a racially-motivated attack against him in January, where he alleged two men attempted to strangle him and pour bleach on him. When the story first broke, it was shaping up to be a watershed moment in conversations about how the current administration is affecting race-relations throughout the country. After law enforcement conducted an investigation into his version of events, they’ve released statements that Smollett may have hired the men responsible to help him stage the attack. The case has created divisive new conversations about the United States’ current political climate, but is also prompting career investigators to highlight the importance of thorough and diligent fact-finding in the early stages of any investigation—especially within corporations.
Conducting an investigation with unimpeachable integrity is very similar to building a structure ready to withstand natural disasters. Laying a firm groundwork from the moment of the intake narrative will set an impregnable foundation allowing investigators and support staff to develop strong leads. Investigators must be prepared to ask every question—albeit inane or delicate—in order to ensure they are getting all of the existing, relevant information on the case. This is a process called fact-finding, in which a victim or witness’s statement is documented and entered into record, thereby allowing investigators to thoroughly vet every aspect of their statement. Were they in fact present when the incident took place? Can they accurately describe the alleged perpetrator? Is their story consistent across multiple iterations?
As is the case with any investigation, operatives are racing against the clock. With time, witnesses’ memories fade and witnesses themselves disappear, having relocated or simply left town. As time goes by, evidence is eroded, eventually disappearing, eliminating the leads they might have developed. This is why thorough fact-finding is so important, because investigators who are operating off false or inaccurate leads can lose days or weeks on a case as they chase a lead that will eventually come to no end. While investigators chase those dead leads, the truth about what actually occurred dissolves into obscurity.
Investigators in the Smollett case were able to vet his account of events and discover there may be more to the story than meets the eye. The case was not an isolated incident of allegedly false accusations having major consequences for the parties involved. Regardless of why an individual would make false accusations—whether it was with malice or simply a mistake—these circumstances could occur in many areas of life that could be devastating to both individuals and corporations.
Allegations of misconduct in the workplace immediately come to mind. Whether it’s allegations of theft or sexual harassment, these are the kinds of cases where it’s crucial to have the intake narrative well-documented, with detailed first accounts from all principles on the who, where, when, how, and why in any series of events. Cases regarding misconduct in the workplace have a higher chance of being litigated following the completion of any investigation, usually through civil and wrongful termination lawsuits.
A thorough and diligent private investigator is an invaluable asset to both sides of any investigation, as they are an independent third party and do not have a stake in the outcome of the investigation. Any fact-finding performed by an objective third party stands up to a much higher degree of scrutiny by the opposition. Investigators who are directly employed by any parties in either side have a lot to lose if their employer faces ruin following a lawsuit.
Which brings us to another issue in handling the fact-finding internally. Internal investigators can have a variety of qualifications depending on the corporation’s procedure. It’s true some businesses have licensed investigators on retainer to assist in regular operations, like a business who hires a private investigator to run a background check on a candidate for an upper management position. However, depending on the size of the company, the investigating party in some corporate crises is just the head of Human Resources—who might then be supervising other subordinates to do the legwork. Human Resource managers are invaluable employees who keep businesses running like clockwork, but this does not necessarily qualify them to conduct an investigation in every possible scenario, such as investigations requiring surveillance, undercover work, or properly documenting any evidence that might be recovered. This kind of oversight can have disastrous consequences in the later stages of an investigation, or even in a court of law. The opposition’s case is strengthened when there is evidence an internal investigator has not done their due-diligence.
Corporations of all sizes, trades, and levels of notoriety experience crises throughout their history. When disaster strikes and the stakes are high, it’s important to retain the services of a qualified, licensed, private investigator to begin an investigation. It’s not uncommon for a private investigator to be hired on after internal investigators have already made an attempt. It’s best to start strong, with due-diligent service from a seasoned external investigator to lay an impenetrable foundation for a thorough investigation.
After the Recovery of Jayme Closs,
Parents Concerned for Own Children’s Safety
Jayme Closs vanished October 15, 2018 and found alive 88-days later in rural Wisconsin. Photo courtesy WOKV TV.
The recent disappearance of Jayme Closs, 13, and the brutal murder of her parents, gripped the nation for nearly 3 months. Jayme’s abduction, and eventual recovery, has parents now wondering how safe their own children are when traveling to and from school.
On October 15, 2018, Barron Sheriff’s Department received a cell phone call from a local residence but were unable to make contact with the caller. We now know that urgent call came from Denise Closs, 46, just moments before she was brutally murdered in front of her own daughter and just following the murder of her husband James, 56.
Police arrived within minutes of the 911 call made from the home.
When police arrived at the Closs home, outside of Barron, WI, they found both parents deceased from gunshot wounds. Jayme was missing.
For months, law enforcement conducted searches looking for the missing 13-year old, puzzled as to why the perpetrator had murdered both of Jayme’s parents in the home, but not Jayme.
According to Jack Levin, professor and co-director of Northeastern University’s Center on Violence and Conflict, it’s unusual for a double murder to be linked to a missing child case. “You almost never see this,” Levin said.
The Closs home sits along Highway 8, a two-lane highway outside of Barron, surrounded by woods. The highway is the main road through the city and then extends to surrounding areas.
Day, weeks, and months went by with no sign of Jayme, then 88 days after her disappearance Jayme made her escape.
Former Attorney General and Judge Brad Schimel, who led the Wisconsin Department of Justice investigation of the Closs case, says investigators always had reason to believe Jayme was alive.
After her recovery, Jayme told police she could hear sirens seconds after being bound, gagged and kidnapped from her home. We find out now, the suspect, Jake Patterson, 21, even yielded to sheriff deputies when they were speeding to the Closs home. While Police Responded to the crime scene, Patterson made an 80-mile drive back to his home in Gordon, with Jayme in the trunk of his vehicle.
Immediately, Barron County Sheriff called in the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation for help. “Within a matter of a couple hours, we can have 40 to 50 agents at the scene of a major investigation,” said Judge Brad Schimel.
CBS 58 Investigates sat down with Judge Schimel, who left office only four days before Jayme was found. “At what point did you stop thinking she might have been killed that night too?” CBS 58 Investigates asked Judge Schimel. “Well, when she didn’t turn up somewhere in a matter of couple days, then we had great hope,” Judge Schimel replied. He added after two people are so brutally murdered, taking the teen alive would be a liability and only made sense if the perpetrator intended on keeping her.
In addition, with hunting season and thousands of Wisconsin residents in the woods hunting, they had even more hope when there were no discoveries of bodies in the woods.
“We believed someone was holding her, which is not good,” said Judge Schimel. We knew that meant this was a very difficult life for her but being alive is a very good thing.”
According to a criminal complaint filed by investigators, Jayme’s kidnapper decided to abduct her after watching her get on a school bus. He was planning on hiding her at a remote cabin until she escaped on January 12, 2018.
Remote cabin where kidnapper Jake Patterson held Jayme Closs for 88 days. Photo courtesy Fox 11 News.
“At that moment,” he said, “he knew that was the girl he was going to take,” the complaint said.
Patterson went to Jayme’s house two times in the days before abducting her.
On the evening Jayme was abducted, Jayme told police, she was sleeping in her room when the family dog began barking. She woke her parents when she saw a car coming up the driveway.
According to the complaint, Jayme and her mother, Denise, hid in the bathroom. They both heard a gunshot, and she knew her father, James, had been killed.
Denise began calling 911 but Patterson broke down the bathroom door, told her to hang up and directed her to tape Jayme’s mouth shut. When Denise complied, Patterson shot her. Following, Patterson taped Jayme’s hands and ankles and dragged her out to his car, throwing her in the trunk and driving away as sirens began to sound, the complaint said.
Patterson had shaved his face and head as well as showered prior to the attack in an attempt to minimize DNA evidence. He dressed in all black. He took his license plates off his car and put stolen plates on while disconnecting the dome and trunk lights.
He took her to a cabin he claims was his, ordered her into a bedroom and told to take her clothes off, the complaint goes on to say.
He put her clothes in a bag and talked about having no evidence. Whenever he had friends over, he made clear that no one could know she was there or “bad things could happen to her,” so she had to hide under the bed.
He would stack totes, laundry bins and barbell weights around her so she could not move without him noticing. The complaint says Jayme was kept up to 12 hours at a time with no food, water or bathroom breaks.
Jayme escaped after Patterson made her go under the bed and told her he would be gone for five or six hours. Once gone, she pushed the bins away, crawled out, put on a pair of Patterson’s shoes and fled the house.
Barron County Sheriff holds picture of Jake Patterson, arrested for the kidnapping of Jayme Closs. Photo courtesy Mercury News.
Once found, Jayme described Patterson’s vehicle to police, and he was apprehended within 10 minutes of her escape being reported.
What Jayme went through while held, we may never know exactly, as the Douglas County District Attorney Mark Fruehauf said he does not anticipate filing charges against Patterson for crimes committed during her time in captivity.
“A prosecutor’s decision whether to file criminal charges involves the consideration of multiple factors, including the existence of other charges and victim-related concerns.”
Patterson faces two counts of intentional homicide, each carrying a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release. Patterson will be back in court Feb 6, for a preliminary hearing.
Estimates of Missing Children Abducted by Strangers
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates approximately 100 children are abducted by strangers every year. Referred to as a “stereotypical kidnapping,” the United States Department of Justice defines this type of kidnapping as 1) the victim is under the age of 18-years old, 2) the kidnapper is either a stranger or “slight acquaintance,” 3) the abduction involves moving the victim at least 20 feet or detaining them for at least one hour, and 4) the victim is either held for ransom, transported at least 50 miles, detained overnight, held with an intent to keep permanently, or killed.
While this may seem like a relatively low number of children abducted by strangers, it still amounts to thousands of children who, over the years, have been entered into the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and never been found.
In fact, during the months of January 2018 and May 2018, there were 3,468 children entered into NCIC as Involuntary. This missing person category includes cases of children who police have determined were taken involuntarily, but not enough evidence to make a determination if they were taken by strangers. *Source FBI NCIC Report
According to the FBI NCIC Report for May 31, 2018, there were 14,714 active missing child cases in the United States. Some of these cases date back 30 years and remain active because the missing child has never been found.
The Closs case may be unique in many respects but is not alone.
The Disappearance of Jaycee Dugard
It was June 10, 1991, in the peaceful town of Meyers, California, an unincorporated community in El Dorado County. Meyers sits along Route 50 in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains just 6 miles south of Lake Tahoe.
Jaycee Dugard vanished from her northern California bus stop on June 10, 1991 and found alive 18 years later. Photo courtesy of NMCO
Jaycee Dugard, 11, sporting pink tights and a white shirt with a printed “kitty cat” on the front, was walking from her home to a school bus stop when she was abducted.
As her stepfather, Carl Probyn, watched Jaycee walk up the hill to the bus stop something horrifying happened. Suddenly, a gray car stopped next to Jaycee. Through the window, Probyn saw an unidentified man roll down his car window and begin speaking to his stepdaughter.
Suddenly, Jaycee fell to the ground while a woman jumped out of the car and carried the fifth-grader into the car.
Probyn would tell police he had witnessed Jaycee’s kidnapping and actually gave chase with his mountain bike. Searches began immediately after Jaycee’s disappearance but generated no reliable leads despite the abduction being witnessed by a family member and the vehicle being described as a Mercury Monarch.
El Dorado Sheriff’s deputies, along with California Highway Patrol search for Jaycee after she was abducted by strangers while walking to her school bus stop in 1991. Photo courtesy CBS News.
Years passed, but Jaycee’s family never gave up hope they would find her, passing out tens of thousands of fliers and extensive national news coverage. The town of Meyers was even covered in pink ribbons to honor Jaycee’s favorite color.
In August 2009, convicted sex offender Philip Garrido, visited the Berkeley Campus at the University of California, accompanied by two young children. He was there to lobby for permission to lead a special event at the campus as part of his “God’s Desire Church” program. His unusual behavior at the meeting sparked an investigation that led Garrido’s parole officer to order him to take the two young girls to a parole office in Concord, Calif., on August 26, 2009. It was later ordered Garrido’s house be searched by police.
Area behind kidnapper Philip Garrido’s home where missing child Jaycee Dugard was found 18 years after her disappearance. Photo courtesy NY Daily News.
Police searched Garrido’s home in Antioch, Calif., near Oakland, approximately 3 hours southwest of Meyers, where Jaycee had vanished from 18 years earlier.
That incident led to the discovery of Jaycee who had been kidnapped by Garrido and his wife Nancy Garrido in 1991. For 18 years, Jaycee, age 29 when found, had been kept in concealed tents, a shed, and lean-tos, in an area behind the Garrido’s house in Antioch, Calif.
Garrido, a sociopath, and pedophile had kidnapped and raped a woman named Katherine Callaway Hall in 1976. He had also abducted Katherine from South Salt Lake Tahoe in a very similar manner to Jaycee’s kidnapping. Garrido was on parole for Katherine’s kidnapping when police stumbled upon Jaycee. She was alive.
In 1991, at Jaycee’s bus stop, Garrido had shocked Jaycee with a stun gun, she remembers feeling a tingling sensation and falling to the ground. Nancy Garrido acted as her husband’s accomplice scouting for young girls for her husband and the one who picked Jaycee up off the ground transporting her to the car on the day they abducted her.
During the 3-hour ride to Garrido’s home, Jaycee remembers falling in and out of consciousness and heard Nancy laughing saying, “I can’t believe we got away with this!” Knowing she was in danger, Jaycee had no way of knowing the hell, life was about to become.
Soundproof shed where missing child Jaycee Dugard was held captive in for 18 years, in Antioch, California. Photo courtesy BBC.
Once they arrived at the Garrido’s home, the pair forced Dugard to strip naked, with the exception of a butterfly ring she was wearing. They then blindfolded Jaycee and placed her in a soundproof shed he had in the backyard where he raped her for the first time, just 11 years old.
For the first week, Jaycee was kept handcuffed in the isolated shed, but things would get much worse.
A few weeks into the ordeal, Garrido brought Jaycee a TV but she was never allowed to watch the news because they did not want her to see the news frenzy surrounding her disappearance. She was only allowed to watch shows of people selling jewelry and found their voices calming, helping her sleep.
Frequently, Garrido would go on 24-hour methamphetamine binges which resulted in rape marathons. He would tell Jaycee dogs were outside the shed to scare her or tell her he was going to place her inside of a cage to keep her fearful of escaping.
While alone, Jaycee kept a journal to deal with her pain and wrote about how she wanted to see her mom. She always ended the note with her name “Jaycee” and a little heart beside. Nancy found the journal and forced Jaycee to tear out all of the pages with her name on them. It was the last time Jaycee was allowed to write or say her own name.
While in captivity Jaycee would give birth to two daughters. The first at age 13 who she named Angel. Jaycee would later explain that once giving birth she never felt alone again.
Jaycee gave birth to her second daughter “Starlit” in 1997.
She now had two daughters to protect.
Even while living in the worst of circumstances Jaycee managed to plant flowers and build a little school outside the shed where she homeschooled her daughters with her fifth-grade education.
For years, the three lived behind the 8-foot fences Garrido had built around his home to keep potential peeping neighbors at bay.
When Garrido had shown up at the campus that fateful day in August 2009 with two little girls, both “submissive and sullen,” Lisa Campbell, the special event s coordinator was concerned and asked him to return the following day. Garrido left his name on a form and left the campus. Campbell then informed an officer who conducted a background check on Garrido and discovered he was a registered sex offender on federal parole for kidnap and rape.
The wheels were now set in motion that would crack the decade’s long-missing child case wide open.
2009, the piece of paper Jaycee Dugard wrote her name on telling police officers who she is. Photo courtesy of NMCO.
Over the years, Jaycee had been directed by Garrido to tell people she was the girl’s big sister and to have Jaycee’s daughters refer to himself and Nancy as mom and dad. When questioned by officers, at first, Jaycee told them her name was Alyssa, claiming to be an abused mother from Michigan who had ran from a domestic violence situation to protect her daughters and living with the Garridos. Not buying the story, officers continued talking to her trying to glean more information. Eventually, Jaycee relaxed and would write her name on a piece of paper. Sliding it to police it said, “Jaycee Lee Dugard.”
Officers immediately asked her if she wanted to call her mom which she replied in disbelief, “Can I call my mom?” Jaycee’s first words to her mother in 18 years were “Come quick!”
Garrido pleaded guilty to kidnapping and raping Dugard and sentenced to 431 years to life at Corcoran State Prison and Nancy Garrido was sentenced to 36 years to life.
Jaycee is now the author of A Stolen Life: A Memoir and lives with her two daughters, reveling in her freedom.
While Jaycee Dugard and Jayme Closs were recovered, some children have not been so lucky.
Disappearance of Etan Patz
Etan Patz, 6, walked out of his New York City home in 1979 headed for his school bus stop just two blocks away in 1979 – and he’s never been found.
It was the last day of school before Memorial Day weekend. Etan had asked his parents to let him walk alone the short way to the bus stop for the first time. He carried his book bag and had a dollar to buy a soda at the corner deli on the way.
His parents were not aware of Etan’s disappearance until he had not returned from school. They would later find out the young boy had never made it to school.
Etan Patz vanished May 25, 1979 in NYC on his way to his school bus stop.
Police set up a Command Center at the Patz Manhattan apartment and began conducting ground searches and going door to door, but no solid leads have developed over the years that have led police closer to finding out what happened to him.
His disappearance rocked New York City and to this day haunts the law enforcement officers who have spent decades trying to find him. “Every missing child case is very important, but this was one of the oldest ones we had,” says NYPD Lieutenant Chris Zimmerman.
Etan was the first child placed on a milk carton, hundreds of thousands of fliers blanketed the country and countless new stories, all to no avail.
Etan’s disappearance became more than a missing person’s case but changed the way parents watched over their kids.
With stories like Etan’s and Jaycee, along with the recent disappearance and recovery of Jayme Closs by a predator who targeted her after watching her board a school bus, parents are again wondering what they can do to keep their children safe.
Safety 101 – Walking to and from school
Parents struggle with many things when it comes to the safety and security of their children. One question a parent may ask is how old is old enough to begin walking to and from school or to a bus stop alone.
There has been a huge drop in the number of kids who walk or ride their bike to school regularly. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, in 1969, 48% of K-8 grade walked or bicycled to school. By 2009, only 13% do.
While pedestrian injury rates are down since 1995 – mostly due to improvements made to traffic infrastructure, implementing the use of crossing guards and sidewalks, there are no statistics that allow for us to know the dangers of how many children are approached by strangers. How many predators are out there targeting our kids? Though statistically, the chances are relatively minimal your child will ever be abducted by a stranger, it does not lessen our responsibility as parents to protect them and prepare them for anything that “could” happen.
Gavin DeBeckers, author of “The Gift of Fear” and one of the leading experts on predicting and managing violence says there is no magic age when kids can walk or bike to and from school or bus stop.
You and only you can make the final decision on when your child is ready to walk alone. However, you can expect to see other children beginning this walk around age 9 to 11. DeBeckers says it depends upon cognitive skills, the ability to follow directions and reasoning, directing parents to ask themselves the following questions:
- Does your child honor his feelings? If someone makes them feel uncomfortable, that’s an important signal your child should react to.
- Does your child know when it’s okay to rebuff and/or defy adults?
- Does your child know it’s okay to be assertive?
- Does your child know it’s okay to ask for help?
- Does your child know how to choose who to ask?
- Does your child know how to describe his peril?
- Does your child know it is okay to strike, even injure, someone if he believes he’s in danger?
- Does your child know it’s okay to make noise, scream and run?
- Does your child know that is someone tries to force him to go somewhere, what he screams should include, “This is not my father?”
- Does your child know if someone tells them not to scream, the thing to do is to scream?
- Does your child know to make EVERY effort to resist going anywhere with someone he doesn’t know?
These questions should apply to your children of any age, even older children are vulnerable to abduction. Keeping in mind, Jaycee Dugard was abducted within the view of her parent, it is important to evaluate the route your child will take and choose the safe route between home and the bus stop/ and or school and practice walking it with your child until he demonstrates awareness.
Remind your children to:
- Stick to well-traveled streets, using the same route every day and always avoid shortcuts.
- Don’t wear clothes or shoes that restrict movement.
- Carry backpacks and bags close to their body.
- Don’t speak to strangers and ALWAYS tell a trusted school official, teacher, store clerk, policeman or another adult if someone has made them feel uncomfortable.
- Teach them to remember specific things about cars and people.
- Let them have a cell phone for emergencies (these can also be tracked by installing a simple and free App called Life 360), which is a locator, messaging and communication app. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Having children walk to and from school or a bus stop has its risks as well as benefits. We all know the risks. However, it is an important milestone in your child’s life and with that comes a sense of independence that comes with being permitted to walk alone or with friends to school or the bus stop. A sense of independence that they will carry throughout their lives and hindering that could stunt this important growth spurt of maturity.
Remember, we can provide our children with tools to keep themselves safe but the tools we teach them early on can also get them through the hardest of times in life.
In the case of both Jayme Closs and Jaycee Dugard, they relied on their innermost strength to survive the most horrific of circumstances. As parents, that’s all we can hope for.
It is said, ambiguous loss is the most traumatic of human experiences, and when someone you love goes missing, it is a trauma unlike any other.
Ambiguous loss occurs without understanding or closure, leaving a person searching for answers. Ambiguous loss confounds the process of grieving, leaving a person with prolonged unresolved grief and deep emotional trauma.
Ambiguous loss can be classified in two categories, psychological and physical. Psychological and physical loss differ in terms of what and why exactly the person is grieving.
Physical ambiguous loss means the body of a loved is no longer present, such as a missing person or unrecovered body, resulting from war, a catastrophe such as 9/11 or kidnapping, but the person is still remembered psychologically because there is still a chance the person may return. Such is the case with a missing person. This type of loss results in trauma and can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Psychological Loss is a type of loss that is a result of a loved one still physically present, but psychologically absent. Psychological loss can occur when the brain of a loved one is affected, such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease.
When a person goes missing, loved ones are left with more questions than answers, leaving them searching, not only for the missing person but for answers.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Pauline Boss is a pioneer who has studied ambiguous loss since 1973, and her decades of research have revealed those who suffer from ambiguous loss without finality, face a particularly difficult burden. Whether it is the experience of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, or someone awaiting the fate of a family member who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances or a disastrous event such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the loss is magnified because it is linked to lack of closure.
Those experiencing ambiguous loss find it difficult to understand, cope and almost impossible to move forward with their lives without professional counseling, love and support.
Experiencing grief is a vital part of healing, but ambiguous loss stalls the process of grieving, sometimes indefinitely. With the possibility a missing person may be alive, individuals are confounded as to how to cope.
Parents and family members of missing persons say there is no such thing as closure. Dr. Pauline Boss says the idea of closure can lead us astray – it’s a myth that needs to be set aside, like accepting the idea grief has five linear stages and we simply come out the other side and done with it.
Five Stages of Grief
It is widely accepted there are five stages of grief:
While many helpful programs are focused on these various stages, they are not necessarily experienced on order, nor are they inclusive to other issues that commonly arise, and they certainly do not include what a family experiences when a loved one goes missing.
In my nearly 30 years working with families of missing persons and unsolved homicides, I have witnessed all stages of grief and ambiguity, finding the profound effects of a loved one going missing is multi-generational and all encompassing.
Family members of missing persons must live with people’s misconception that the individual or family must move on. Like PTSD flashbacks, a missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end, and each life event is a reminder the individual, is gone without a trace.
Those of us who have never experienced having a loved one disappear, tend to react to situations using our own experiences and may relate the disappearance of an individual to the death of someone we have loved passing away. The problem is, with a missing person there is no place to grieve, to visit, no physical body to mourn.
Constant daily uncertainty is a major source of stress, emotionally, physically, psychologically and with a missing person, the uncertainty does not dissipate. When others expect one to move on, they commonly do not understand circumstances simply do not allow it.
It is not uncommon for families to experience all phases of ambiguous loss taking a toll both physically and mentally. While I was there to help, I often found myself the one who was thankful as I was blessed to see and meet, the most amazing, strong, and courageous individuals. Getting to know these families made me face my own vulnerability and the fact this can happen to any family.
The most moving of my recollections is of a young mother who had gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Her mother had contacted me and knew something terrible had happened to her daughter, insistent police needed to investigate more aggressively.
She had been missing a year during Christmas of 2002. Her mother called me to discuss her daughter’s case and told me that her granddaughter had written a letter to Santa and wanted to read it to me.
The little girl wrote:
“Dear Santa, I am not writing you for toys this year. The only thing I want for Christmas is for my Mommy to come home.”
My heart broke for this little girl. Little did I know, fast forward fifteen years later, I would be having a conversation with the same child. She had grown into a beautiful young lady and miraculously living a normal life despite growing up without her mother who remains missing. Not all are so fortunate.
Sometimes we forget how many people are impacted when a loved one goes missing. Children of missing persons, siblings, grandparents, parents, and other family and friends. The impact is immeasurable on the family structure and one needing to be studied further. What we do know, is the trauma of ambiguous loss affects everyone differently and a family can quickly spiral out of control without immediate intervention.
When a person goes missing, children are displaced, families can suffer financially due to loss of income or assets becoming tied up in the legal process, siblings of missing persons, children especially, face numerous obstacles when being raised in a household where ongoing trauma is occurring and they must live in the shadow of someone no longer there.
With missing children, parents are faced with the “not knowing” on a day to day basis. When an adult child goes missing, parents are not only left with the “not knowing”, they also face the possibility of raising their grandchildren.
As with the young girl who I watched grow up, her grandmother somehow found the courage to raise her granddaughter while continuing to search for anything leading to her missing daughter. She had found a balance providing a healthy and loving environment for her granddaughter, while facing she may never see her own daughter again.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published a handbook When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide to help families with the crisis of having a missing child.
Though not the product of abstract academic research, it was written by parents of missing children, with the assistance of law enforcement and youth professionals, containing critical information, guidance and tools parents need to help find their missing child while making every effort to focus on staying healthy. The guide contains much information to simply help families make it through a day.
Many of the parents who helped write the handbook, I had the honor of working with over the course of decades. Following, we will summarize the first 48 hours a family must make it through when a loved one goes missing. While it is focused on families who have missing children, this handbook is an important resource for anyone with a missing person in their life, regardless of age.
While the handbook contains steps to take to effectively work with law enforcement, media volunteers, how to disseminate fliers, and more – the most important part of the handbook is Chapter 7 focusing on maintaining health, preparing for the long term, the importance of not utilizing substances and medications to deal with the loss, and uniting with your remaining children focusing on their security and potential emotional issues.
“Hanging onto my sanity for a minute at a time often took all of my energy. I could not begin to look several days down the road,” said Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan who vanished June 9, 1995.
When your child is missing, you are overwhelmed with questions from police, neighbors, family and friends, and the media. At times, a parent may be faced with decisions they never thought they would have to make. One can begin to feel isolated, confused and utterly desperate with nowhere to go for support, but there is hope and it is found in the experience of other parents of missing persons who are courageous, and in my opinion, heroic.
The First 24 Hours (A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide)
- Immediately report your child missing to local law enforcement. Ensure law enforcement enters your child’s data into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and notifies the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
- Request police issue a “Be On the Look Out” (BOLO) message.
- Limit access to your home until police have arrived to collect evidence. It is important not to touch or remove anything from your child’s room.
- Ask for the contact information of the law enforcement officer assigned to your case. Keep in a safe place.
- Provide law enforcement with facts related to the disappearance of your child, including what has already been done to find the child.
- Have a good photograph available of your child and include a detailed description of your child and what your child was wearing.
- Make a list of friends, family and acquaintances and contact information for anyone who may have information about your child’s whereabouts. Include anyone who has moved in or out of the neighborhood within the last year.
- Make copies of photographs of your child in both black and white and color to provide to law enforcement, NCMEC, and media.
- Ask your law enforcement agency to organize a search for your child both foot patrol and canine.
- Ask law enforcement to issue an AMBER ALERT if your child’s disappearance meets the criteria.
- Ask law enforcement for guidance when working with media. It is important not to divulge information law enforcement does not want released to media possibly compromising the recovery efforts of your child.
- Designate one individual to answer your phone notating and summarizing each phone call, complete with contact information for each person who has called in one notebook.
- In addition, keep a notebook with you at all times to write down thoughts, questions, and important information, such as names, dates and telephone numbers.
- Take good care of yourself and your family because your child needs you to be strong. Force yourself to eat, rest and talk to others about your feelings.
The Next 24 Hours
- Ask for a meeting with your investigator to discuss steps being taken to find your child. Ensure your investigator has a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management. They can call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST to obtain a copy. In addition, ask them to contact the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in their local FBI Field Office to obtain a copy of the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Plan.
- Expand your list of friends, acquaintances, extended family members, landscapers, delivery persons, babysitters and anyone who may have seen your child during or following their disappearance or abduction.
- Look at personal calendars, newspapers and community events calendars to see if there may be any clues as to who may have been in the area and provide this information to law enforcement.
- Understand you will be asked to take a polygraph. This is standard procedure.
- Ask your law enforcement agency to request NCMEC issue a Broadcast Fax to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
- Work cooperatively with your law enforcement agency to issue press releases and media events.
- Talk to law enforcement about the use of a reward.
- Report all information and/or extortion attempts to law enforcement immediately.
- Have a second telephone line installed with call forwarding, Caller ID and call waiting. If you do not have one, get a cell phone so you can receive calls when you are away from home and forward all calls to it.
- Make a list of what volunteers can do for you and your family.
- Contact your child’s doctor and dentist and request copies of medical records and x-rays to provide to police. Ask the doctor to expedite your request based upon the circumstances.
- Take care of yourself and your family and do not be afraid to ask others to help take care of your physical and emotional needs. Your remaining children need to know you are also there for them while staying strong and healthy for them all.
The resounding message here is family members of missing persons must take care of themselves and include others in their journey to help them along when they are tiring.
For more information about obtaining a copy of A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide please contact NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST or obtain a copy here https://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/childismissing/contents.html
The Disappearance of Morgan Nick
It was June 9, 1995, on a beautiful evening in the small town of Alma, Arkansas. Alma is located along I-40 within the Arkansas River Valley at the edge of the Ozark Mountains with a population under 5,000 people.
That evening was the first time 6-year old Morgan Nick had gone to a baseball game. Her mother Colleen was attending the Rookie League game at the Alma ballpark and Morgan had whined about having to sit next to her mother in the bleachers. There was a nearby sand pile with other children playing and Morgan wanted to play. It was within eyesight and only seconds away, so Colleen consented.
Morgan Nick, age 6, vanished from Alma, Arkansas on June 9, 1995
Morgan ran to the sandpile, laughing with the other children while Colleen turned her head back to watch the Marlins and Pythons. A player whacked the ball and two runners tied the game, then a run was scored, and the Pythons won the game. The sound of the crowd cheering was deafening.
When Colleen stood up, she could see Morgan’s playmates walking down the hill away from the sandpile, but where was Morgan? It was approximately 10:30 p.m.
The children told Colleen, Morgan was pouring sand out of her shoe near her mother’s car parked nearby. Colleen frantically searched. Morgan was gone.
Later, the children would tell police they saw a man approach Morgan. Another abduction attempt had occurred in Alma the same day and police had a composite sketched based on witnesses of the other incident.
Thousands of leads later, numerous appearances on national news talk shows, even America’s Most Wanted, and Morgan’s mother is nowhere closer to knowing what happened to her daughter. Police have interviewed hundreds of persons of interest, searched homes and wells, and dug up slabs of concrete with backhoes, but Morgan remains missing 23 years later.
The stakes are high when a person vanishes involuntarily.
Morgan’s mother Colleen spent years keeping Morgan’s room the way it was when she vanished. She bought Christmas presents and a birthday present each year, hoping Morgan would someday return to open them.
The emotional toll is beyond words.
On Morgan’s Birthday, September 12, 2014, Colleen wrote an Open Letter to Morgan, posted on the NCMEC blog.
A Letter to Our Missing Daughter Morgan Nick
Today is your 26th birthday. Today marks twenty birthdays without you here. We miss you so desperately and our hearts are ragged with grief. We have searched for you every single day since the day you were kidnapped from us at the Little League Baseball field in Alma, Arkansas.
You were only 6 years old. We went with our friends to watch one of their children play in the game. You threw your arms around my neck in a bear hug, planted a kiss on my cheek, and ran to catch fireflies with your friends.
It is the last time that I saw you. There have been so many days since then of emptiness and heartache.
On this birthday I choose to think about your laughter, your smile, the twinkle in your sparkling blue eyes. I celebrate who you are and the deep and lasting joy that you bring to our family.
I smile today as I think about your 5th birthday. For that birthday, we took you to the Humane Society with the promise of adopting a kitten. You, my precious little girl with your big heart, took one look around the cat room and picked out the ugliest, scrawniest, most pitiful looking kitten in the entire place. Such a tiny little thing, that it was mostly all eyes.
Dad and I used our best parental powers of persuasion to get you to pick a different kitten, to look at the older cats, to choose any other feline besides that poor ugly kitty. It looked like someone had taken the worst leftover colors of mud, stirred them together, and used them to design a kitten.
You planted your five-year-old feet, looked us straight in the eye and declared that this was the kitten you were taking home. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You would not budge, and you resolutely refused to take a second look at any other cat or kitten in the room. You had a fire of conviction in your heart.
The unexpected obstacle we faced was we were not able to adopt on that Saturday but had to wait until Monday to finalize. For the rest of the weekend and all-day Monday, you fretted and pouted and worried someone else would take “your” kitten home with them. We tried to assure you that no one else would want that cat. We didn’t want to say it was because it was so tiny, or so ugly, or so-nothing-at-all-but-eyes. You could see only beauty and you were in love.
Finally, Monday afternoon came, and dad brought it home with him after work. In that moment, your daddy was your biggest hero because he had saved your kitten.
You tenderly snuggled that little bit of fur into your arms and declared that her name was Emily. You adored your new kitten and she loved you right back. Emily gained some weight and filled out a bit. Her colors started to take shape. We began to see the same beauty in her that you had seen in that very first moment.
Where you went, Emily went. You played together. You ate together. You watched Barney together. You slept together.
Which brings me to the photo. It captures everything we love about you. I would slip into your room late at night and stand there, watching the two of you sleeping together, in awe of your sweetness, and my heart would squeeze a little tighter.
So many birthdays have passed since then. So many days since a stranger ripped you from our hearts.
My sweet girl, if you should happen to read this, we want you to know how very important and special you are to us. You are a blessing we cannot live without. We feel cheated by every day that goes by and we do not see your smile, hear your bubbly laughter, or listen to your thoughts and ideas. We have never stopped believing that we will find you. We are saving all our hugs and kisses for you.
Please be strong and brave, with a fire of conviction in your heart, just like the day you picked out your kitten!
On this birthday we promise you that we will always fight for you. We will bring you back home to our family where you belong. We will always love you! We will never give up.
Love Mom (Colleen Nick) & Dad
One cannot help but feel the Nick family’s loss. So many birthdays, so many Christmases, so many days wondering if Morgan is alive. How on earth have they done it?
Hope is incredibly important in life for health, happiness, success and coping. Research shows optimistic people are more likely to live fulfilling lives and to enjoy life. In addition, hope relieves stress reducing the risk of many leading causes of death such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Having hope takes a special kind of courage I have found so many families of missing persons have mustered during the most difficult time of their lives . . . not just one season but many Seasons of Hope.