Expert critiques police in missing girl case

Mon, April 13, 2009

A national U.S. centre for missing children is questioning why police in Woodstock took up to 12 hours to publicly announce eight-year-old Victoria Stafford had disappeared.

Oxford Community Police on Monday called off the ground search for the girl, five days into her disappearance and after a massive effort by police and volunteers, saying they’re now treating the case as a missing persons investigation.

When a child goes missing in the U.S., law enforcement agencies are required to notify the FBI within two hours, Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia, said Monday.

That’s because data shows that in the most serious cases, a missing child is murdered within three hours, he said.

“You cannot wait until tomorrow — the greatest likelihood of finding a child alive occurs in the early moments,” he said.

While Stafford was first reported missing to police in Woodstock about 6 p.m. last Wednesday, the police didn’t publicly report her gone until early the next morning.

The era when police waited until the next day to report a missing child was standard 20 years ago — but not acceptable today, Allen said.

“The concern is that one should never assume there is an innocent explanation. You have to move very quickly.”

In the U.S. a missing child report results in an immediate report filed into the FBI computer database, so law enforcement agencies can quickly begin investigating.

Oxford Community Police did have information filed to the Canadian Police Information Centre — a computer system linking police nationwide — before midnight Wednesday, Const. Laurie Ann Maitland said Monday.

But Maitland was “not certain” why reports of the girl’s disappearance went to a few local radio stations early the next morning and to a wider number of media at 6 a.m. — 12 hours after police learned the Grade 3 girl was missing.

“It may be because people were out searching,” she said, adding day-shift officers were going door-to-door and the night shift doesn’t usually send out news releases.

That public notification through the media is different than the so-called Amber Alert, the Canadian emergency broadcast system when children under 18 are both believed abducted and at risk of serious bodily harm.

Despite criticism by some over the failure to issue an Amber Alert in the Woodstock case, police have maintained they did not have the information needed — for example, evidence of an abduction and description of a suspect or a vehicle — to satisfy the strict rules to trigger an alert.

Besides early public notification, Allen questioned why the RCMP, which has a National Missing Children Service, hasn’t been called in to help, calling them “exemplary” and “world leaders” in finding missing kids.

“I would be very surprised if they are not involved. The RCMP do outstanding work,” he said.

But police in Woodstock believe they have enough “major case” experience with London and Waterloo police helping in the case.

The OPP were also asked to help in the ground search Sunday, although an OPP helicopter was used last Thursday.

“We have a lot of support — it is not just us,” said Maitland, who wasn’t certain yesterday if the RCMP will be notified.

Data shows “a vast majority” — more than 99 per cent — of missing children are found safe, said Allen.

But he wasn’t surprised Stafford was last seen walking with an unidentified woman, captured on a video camera from a nearby high school.

Research shows that in cases where a non-family member is involved in an abduction, 25 per cent are women and in the case of infants, women are the primary abductors, he said.

Police in Woodstock have not called the Stafford case an abduction.

The only clue to Stafford’s disappearance has been a video taken from a high school near her elementary school, showing her walking with an unidentified woman.

As for why Stafford may have gone with that person, “children believe what they are told,” Allen said.

A prominent case in the U.S. about 10 years ago saw a nine-year-old girl taken by her babysitter, who told the child her mother wanted her to come with her.

The child went with the woman and was found nine months later.

“Children are hard-wired to believe what they are told,” especially by a person in a position of trust, said Allen.

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