Sunday, September 4, 2016

Jacob Wetterling found: A Word about the word "closure"

With the announcement that Jacob Wetterling has been found deceased, and authorities led to the remains by a suspect in the case, we have already heard the word “closure” used quite a bit. Some families of long-term missing and murdered persons have voiced discomfort with the way that this word is used, as it sometimes seems to convey a set of expectations about the family’s response to knowing what happened to their loved one.

“Closure” only means that the ambiguity of not knowing what happened to your loved one is ended. Closure says nothing about whether or not a person is prepared for the ending of the ambiguity. It doesn’t say anything about the possibility that the ambiguity allowed for a person to cling to the idea of a different possible outcome, and there might be severe grief when that ambiguity is removed and replaced with certainty.

Popular use of the word “closure” can imply that the end of ambiguity is the end of the story. And for some of the helpers in missing person’s cases, that is true. The job of the investigators and the searchers is to find out what happened to the loved one. To remove ambiguity and provide certainty, and give the prosecutors what they need to pursue justice. When they give the family “closure”, they should feel a sense of completion.

But we have heard from other families who have gone through similar circumstances, popular use of the word “closure” can be a huge burden. When someone says the word “closure” to them, it can convey a sense that the speaker believes that they should now feel complete. Anyone who has lost a loved one can tell you that you do not feel complete the moment you learn a loved one is deceased.

Every individual and family is unique, and processes grief, fear, sorrow differently. Every individual releases hope for a reunion in this life differently, and the hope for reunion in a future life may be a comfort or may not, depending on the individual

Executive Director Teresa Lhotka says,

“When Jacob was kidnapped, Minnesotans reached out and took him into their hearts. In a way, he became everyone’s child, and in a way his story and his family’s story became everyone’s story. It’s important right now to remember who this story really belongs to, and to let them own it. Let’s give this family space and peace and quiet from the outside, and take a breath. As a public, we want to make meaning out of this. However, let’s remember that Jacob belongs first and foremost to his family. Let’s take a step back and wait before we speak, especially let’s wait before we claim ‘closure’ for them, whatever our understanding of the word.”

Jacob’s family has a long road ahead of them. There is a lot more that they are going to face going forward, and much of it will need to be in the public eye. As much as we the public feel like we need to know what happened, and want to see justice done, let’s remember to make space for this family and to support them by waiting until they speak, and listening and responding to what they say. Let’s be very careful, in this time when they need privacy, to not write their script for them.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Safe Harbor Navigators - an important resource

Does this sound like a child you know?

·       Chronic running away

·       Chronically truant

·       Lots of cash or valuable items, with no explanation where it/they came from

·       Marked emotional changes; fear, anxiety, depression, submissiveness, evasiveness.

·       Prepaid phone, or gift of a phone from someone who has no business giving them a phone.

·       Owning a fake ID

·       Possession of hotel key cards

·       Another person who seems controlling, domineering, stalking or ever-present. May be a boyfriend, but is not necessarily a male person. May or may not be older/adult; but is certainly in control of the child.

·       Sexually explicit or suggestive profiles or posts on social media

·       Frequent, unexplained bruises or injuries.

These are just a few of the things that we have heard in trainings that might indicate that a child is being groomed for trafficking, or being trafficked. This is by no means a complete list, but when we see these things (or other things that just don’t seem right), we refer the family to the Safe Harbor Navigator in their area.

Experts in the area of child trafficking, these Regional Navigators are a valuable resource for our children, families and communities. They connect and coordinate services for sexually exploited youth.

Navigators can also often find services for people with organizations that have special connection to cultural and linguistic communities around the state.

If you believe that your child is being trafficked, or is being groomed for trafficking, you can consult a regional navigator for help. These organizations can help families with assessment and to connect to services that will help.

Friday, January 8, 2016

"What Can I Do"?

Normally, we like to talk about the things that you can do to keep the children in your life safer and more resilient. We really enjoy empowering parents in ways that are pro-active and preventative.

But sometimes we need to talk about ways that we can empower parents who are in the middle of the worst experience of their lives, and need help.

The parents of chronic run-aways have few options and very few allies in keeping their children at home. They often face a public that is apathetic about the risks to the runaway, and who tend to judge the parents of runaways harshly. They also often have to deal with other adults in the child’s life who actively undermine their authority, lure and encourage the children into running, and alienate them from their parent rather than encouraging a healthy reunification. They face police whose hands are tied as far as what they can do to remedy the situation. And this is all on top of whatever difficulties are presented by their jobs (or the loss of their job due to dealing with a child in crisis), the need to care for their other children, and the need to simply keep the fundamentals of life moving in the right direction.

They have to hear their family derided as “most likely abusive or neglectful”. They have to hear their child referred to as a “Juvenile Delinquent” (as one mom told me “If only my child WAS a delinquent!  They could lock her up and make her take her meds!”).

Like all things, how much you invest in helping is up to you.

Let’s start small:

You can help families of chronic run-aways by not minimizing their circumstances. A child is missing if the person who is responsible for their safety does not know where they are. Missing children are presumed to be in danger, because they are not where those charged with their safety can watch over, protect, and guide them. It is really helpful for parents to know that others share their concern for their child.

You can recognize that yes, good kids from good families run away from home. Kids run from problems that they don’t know how to solve, and sometimes they have a hard time believing that even the most understanding parents will understand their problem. After all, if the child themselves does not understand their own problem, how can they expect their parents to understand? It is really helpful for families to be supported rather than blamed, and to have the value and importance of their child affirmed.

You can “Share” the posters from reputable agencies.  The key here, is to make sure that the poster comes from a reputable agency that verifies missing child cases before producing a poster. Agencies such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Missing Children Minnesota, Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, Polly Klaas Foundation, Heidi Search Center, etc. always verify that a case is legitimate, and that the person registering the child with them is someone who actually has a legal right to locate the child. One way to check if an organization is reputable, is to see if they belong to an association which requires its members to use best practices and follow a code of ethics. One such association is the Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organizations (AMECO)

Now for something a little bigger:

You can volunteer, fundraise, or contribute to an organization that supports searching families. In Minnesota, both Missing Children Minnesota and Jacob Wetterling Resource Center are AMECO members. There is also the Amber Alert Fundraiser, which raises money directly for the BCA, who administer the Amber Alert in Minnesota.

You can advocate for more and better training for police officers around the issue of missing and exploited children. Did you know that training is a huge expense for police departments? It is, because they have to pay for the training the officer receives, pay them for their time spent in the training, AND pay the officer that works in place of the officer who is away at training!  With money so short nowadays, training dollars have to be prioritized, and that means some issues have to take a back seat. One way to advocate for missing kids is to advocate for more funding for the people who have the most power and ability to bring them home; your local Law Enforcement! More manpower and more training would go a long way to bringing more kids home faster. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but this is the sort of investment that would pay dividends for many years down the road.

You can join the conversation and advocate for more support for families struggling with a child who repeatedly runs away. Did you know that it is almost impossible to find a secure facility in Minnesota for a teenager if they have not been adjudicated delinquent? If a child appears to be a danger to themselves or others, they can be put on a medical hold. However, the level of danger required for that is fairly extreme. Children with severe mental, behavioral, or chemical health problems are very difficult to place in a secure setting long enough to get them on the right path.

We have seen numerous cases of children placed in outpatient therapy programs who never show up, because they run the minute they are returned to their parent. The parents beg for a secure placement where their child will be compelled to face their problems, sit still long enough for the medications to really work, get intensive therapy and participate as a condition for gaining privileges.

We have heard these kids referred to as “frequent fliers” and the phenomenon as a “revolving door”. But these phrases don’t really capture the meat of what is happening to these kids. The lack of consistent treatment is counter-productive.  Going on-and-off medications, running to other children or to irresponsible adults who encourage or enable self-medication with street drugs and alcohol, repeatedly suffering the traumas of street life (giving them even more trauma to run from) -- this isn’t working. It’s not working for the kids who need help. It’s not working for the parents and police officers and case workers who are desperate to help them.

As a society, we need to come up with a way to protect our children and help them make the transition into adulthood. It isn’t working to wash our hands of these kids at age 16 and decide that there is nothing we can do to bring a child in and keep them safe, help their parents make sure they take their meds, are kept clear of people who want to enable them to run (or even lure and encourage them to run), and make sure that they show up for therapy sessions and classes.

These kids can walk and talk and posture like adults, but they are still children. They still need guidance, care, discipline and support. Some need more than others. And some parents need help to fight the streets for their troubled children.

You can get educated about the issues, and proliferate good information and good policy ideas through your social networks in order to push solutions. In the end, this is what will make things better. We need good citizens who care enough and invest enough of themselves to get our resources focused on the root causes of the problem. These are just a few action ideas to get us started. You can start small. You don’t have to get into the weightier issues right away. If everyone did a little, things would be so much better! Thank you for reading this blog entry. Thank you for any comments you can make or ideas you can offer. Thank you for all that you do every day to make your corner of the world a little better!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Case Studies - "lures"

We've been going through old files and piles of stuff here at MCM, and it has been quite a journey for all of us.

Of course, Carol Watson is very familiar with all of these old stories and old documents. She's the only person who has been part of MCM from the beginning.

We came across a couple of case studies that demonstrate the importance of teaching kids to recognize "lures". "Lures" are deceptive behaviors, or attractive objects used to entice someone into danger. Whether you are talking about fish or children, or adults, the primary thing that makes a lure successful is that it appears attractive, and does not seem dangerous at first.

JAMES: an example of the "help lure" (this story was shared as part of a 1996 fund raising letter)

4-year-old James had attended a "Run, Yell & Tell!" presentation in his day care. One afternoon as he played in his front yard, a car pulled up. A nice looking man leaned out the window and asked him "Hey, could you help me for a minute?"

James was about to approach the car when he remembered what he has learned at the "Run, Yell & Tell!"  presentation: "Always ask first" before you help someone. He ran inside to ask his babysitter. When he and his babysitter returned, the car and the man were gone.

James may have prevented his own abduction by remembering what he had learned about prevention from Missing Children Minnesota.

SUSAN: an example of the lure of "understanding" and "support".

16-year-old Susan ran away from her father's home in search of a modeling career. What she found instead was an older man who took her in and treated her kindly. Eventually, the man began to sexually abuse Susan and threatened the girl when she tried to leave.

Susan was trapped.

Her father called Missing Children Minnesota soon after she left. He was frantic and very worried about his daughter. MCM checked around and soon began to hear rumors of sightings of Susan and the older man. Eventually, a "sting" was set up and Susan and the man were caught. Susan returned home with her father. The man was charged with sexual abuse.

The takeaway:

We need to remind very young children to "Always ask first" before they accept anything from someone, go anywhere with someone, or help someone with anything. If a person other than the person who is taking care of them at that time approaches them for any reason, they should "ask first!" before engaging.

Older children need to be reminded to "check in" with the person in charge whenever their plans change, or if something doesn't go as planned, or if something doesn't seem quite right.

And, of course, we need to always remember to keep our "trusted adult" hat firmly in place and be alert to difficulties, frustrations, or dangers that our children are encountering. If we don't help and guide them, there are others out there who will use their understanding of our kids needs to exploit them and violate their trust.

It is a big job, and it can be scary with so much at stake. However, remember that all you really have to do is listen, be present, be supportive. You don't have to have all the answers, you don't have to do everything right. You just have to show the kids in your life that they are important, and that you will be there to help them reach their goals and deal with their problems.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Word About "That Word": Why "closure" isn't adequate.

Being an “organization of loss” puts us in a unique community. We exist at an intersection of loss that puts us in communion with many different “organizations of loss”. As a member of that community, we dutifully maintain our awareness of the issues and ideas of other organizations that deal with loss.

I was reading the newsletter for The Central Minnesota Chapter of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children.

In it, there was an article about the stages of grief, and how grief is a sometimes cyclical process towards peace with a loss or a death.

Understanding that process doesn’t make it any easier, and does not diminish the suffering of people going through it. People in grief for a lost loves one, especially a child, do not want to hear about “the process of grief”. They are IN it, and they just need to feel whatever they are feeling right now.

When our families have a child missing over years or decades, they go through similar stages, but what stands out to me is that with no known outcome, there is no progress towards being at peace. You can’t accept an outcome that never comes.

People discuss the concept of a outcome as “closure”, but many of our left behind and searching families shake their head (and sometimes their fists) at that word. “Closure” implies an ending to the process, a close book means that you are done reading it. A close door means an end to possibilities.

But finding out what happened to your child isn’t an ending, it is a beginning. A beginning of processing an outcome, whether it is your child found unharmed, your child found with substantial injuries (physical, mental, emotional), or your child found deceased.

Until you know what your child needs from you, what they went through, what happened to them, you cannot begin to make progress.

Our parents of long-term missing go through the stages of grief without progressing towards peace, however temporary.

They endure the endless questions, the analysis, the accusations, the casual blame-game of the public, the invasive manner in which some outsiders express sympathy, the self-doubt and questioning, the depersonalization of their child’s case (“Oh your child is missing? How awful, I can’t even imagine. I just saw that special about Adam Walsh the other day!”) – and then they get up the next day and do it again.

For families of murdered children, the process of grief never truly ends. It reaches a point where they can do other things, think other things, have joy in their memories more often than pain…but that grief comes back again and again.

For families of missing children, that journey can’t even begin until their child comes home.

I’d just like to remind people that “answers” are NOT “closure”. Even “closure” isn’t “closure”…since we all know that pain and grief revisit us throughout our lives when we lose a loved one. They are never truly gone, and the pain of missing them is never truly gone.

Answers are important. They are needed and vital, and our families deserve them. But they are just a beginning, not an ending.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A word from 1987 about Chronic Runaways and why there is no "one size fits all" solution.

This article was printed in the Missing Children’s Bulletin in 1987. Missing Children's Bulletin was a small-print publication of a Missing Child Organization called I-Search. It was written by Jan Stanton, and many of the issues it raises are still going on today. Of course, in this day and age, we have learned more about the role that mental health, learning disabilities, and bullying (especially of LGBT youth) have on runaway behavior. Still, the problem space – and the shortfalls of the solution space seem to have moved little.

We still struggle with stereotyping of runaway youth and their families, which gets in the way of the individual solution needed to effectively address the problem. We still struggle with a lack of coordination of services that allows children and families to fall through the cracks.

We still have a problem with the needs of runaway youth not being enough of a social, justice system, and funding priority. We still have elements of the youth culture that encourage and glorify running away as a means to independence and self-determination.

 Pass it On: Safety Tips for Professionals
by Jan Stanton

“Chronic or habitual runaways many times are children who are searching for solutions to their problems. They are knowledgeable about the system and they realize that it hasn’t worked for them. We must address the problems of the runaway, as well as those of the professionals who work with them, and the problems within the system itself.

This “system” may include law enforcement, youth service agencies, mental health agencies, rape crisis centers and criminal justice professionals. These agencies, within the overall system, must work together to provide intervention, referral and resources for the chronic runner.

 Since law enforcement officers are not generally councilors, they must refer the youth to an appropriate agency during initial intervention. For follow-up and/or return of the youth, law enforcement’s role needs to include an in-depth interview with the youth concerning causation and details surrounding their runaway experiences.

Professionals working with runaways need to understand the dynamics and characteristics of these youths. This understanding may enable them to assist the youth in breaking their cycle of running and perhaps their cycle of victimization. For some chronic runners, reasons for running are extremely complex, and depend on how youth perceive themselves and the world around them. Some perceive their runaway episode as a step toward independence. They feel that others, especially parents, control what is happening to them. They believe parents should change, and if such changes do not take place, they are disappointed. Chronic runaways will continue to hope that their lives will improve. When they don’t, they will run again.

Runaway skills are learned, and most youths do not automatically know how to run away from home or where to go. This learning may take place through a series of social encounters which may be positive or negative. Running away demands a great deal of experimentation, taking chances and involvement on the part of the youth. Peers are often a part of those experiments as well as a critical support network for approval or discouragement of continual absences. After repeated episodes, youths may be influenced by those who may become their exploiters, thus adding to their already troubled environment.

When examining the chronic runner, parents, case workers, law enforcement officials and youth advocates must draw careful distinctions between those young people who are totally assertive and committed to a new way of living, and young people who are delinquent, troubled, or are seeking help. Young people who are testing the social boundaries on behalf of growing independence are distinctly different from young people who are bored, deprived, abused, or emotionally confused.

Given the expanded focus on runaways in today’s society, helping professionals must take a closer look at the growing problem of the chronic runner.  Upon returning home or to shelters, it is essential that a broader range of services be made available for children and parents. Young people and their parents must be given the opportunity to examine the problems that have led to the runaway episodes and explore other choices.

“To remain optimistic about the future of our nation’s youth, we just confront the many reasons underlying runaway behavior. The answer seems straightforward: there are often inadequacies in the home, the school, and the community. The youth must still be held accountable, however. But the difficult question remains: How do we develop reasonable accountability in both?” (Robbie Callaway, Director of Governmental/United Way Relations, Boy’s Clubs of America).
These system-kids who are lost in bureaucratic mazes, underfunded services and unheeding communities need our attention. Professionals who spend time working with these youth have felt our adult failures, have watched the youths struggle and have seen many succeed. The Potential is there – both for youth and for the professional. Won’t you use your skills and PASS IT ON.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Importance of Social Support in Missing Child Cases

“Social Support is the Interpersonal Factor most predictive of post-traumatic resiliency”.

-          Dr. Emery John’s Hopkins School of Public Health


The cases of missing/unidentified persons and their families are part of what has been called “The Silent Mass Disaster”. If a natural disaster or an act of terrorism affected as many people as missing and unidentified persons cases do every year, our country would respond with a massive effort on a scale that we have never seen before.

That would be awesome, since we know that support of community, friends and neighbors is the biggest indicator that someone will overcome trauma, recover, and go on to thrive.

And we need our searching families to stay strong through the trauma of missing a loved one, recover, and thrive, so that they can be that support for the missing person when he or she returns home.

In cases where the abductor feels that they have sufficient control over their victims, an abducted child may be allowed access to media. This social support can help them endure their ordeal until they have the opportunity to escape.

Missing/unidentified cases are very much a matter of public interest, public concern, and collective responsibility.

Unfortunately, missing/unidentified person cases are instead seen as individual and private tragedies, rather than a public safety or public health issue. This isolation is complicated by the drive many feel to distance themselves from those suffering misfortune.

It is almost a reflex for people to immediately blame the missing person and their family for what has happened to their loved-one. Because if that family did something to cause the misfortune, then observers can comfort themselves with the illusion that nothing of the sort will happen to them or their loved ones.

This urge takes on a whole different aspect when it is taken up by mob mentality on social media.

Social media is a powerful tool for communicating a case to the public. However, it can quickly turn on a family if they become the focus of people who are determined to blame, shame, and isolate the victims. It can lead to the strange situation of being completely isolated while at the same time, being considered public property for anyone to put their mark on.

In this day and age, when “True Crime” Drama is second only to “Reality T.V.”, and most people get their news from social media, we have a public that is engaged as never before with both entertainment and with following real-life dramas of private people.

Everyone wants to be a super-sleuth, and everyone wants to be the one who figured out “whodunnit”.

Sometimes, people get carried away and forget that there are real people and real families behind the headlines, and it is very easy for them to get into grinding their own ax at the expense of the people involved.

Every searching family has to decide (along with law-enforcement and their support team),  how much and what kind of information to put out about their child and the circumstances of their disappearance.

They have to ask themselves if this information will:

·        make my child more vulnerable?

·       signal the direction of the investigation to the people responsible?

·       give away information about what we know and how we know it?

·       reveal private things about our family that won’t help the investigation?

·       lead to retaliation against the child by the people responsible for his or her disappearance?

Many searching families are criticized for not putting out enough information, and accused of “hiding” information, “only telling part of the story”, and other accusations based on their choices to curate the information they share about their child’s case.

We have seen cases where children who have been abducted have been re-victimized in social media due to thoughtless and cruel comments.

In one national case, a teenaged girl whose mother and younger brother were murdered as part of the abduction was accused of being the mastermind of her own victimization. A self-proclaimed crime profiler and journalist wrote a number of columns accusing the child of being responsible for her own victimization. This, in spite of multiple unequivocal assertion of Law Enforcement Officers from multiple agencies that worked the case that the child was a victim.

In every case we have looked at, there are some people who find it easier to blame the missing and their families, rather than be supportive and helpful.

Our policy is to support the families and the missing through the crisis, and help connect them to resources as needed to empower them to overcome any conditions that may have contributed to the child being missing, and to help them recover from the trauma of the crisis.

Why do we do that, people wonder?

After all, common opinion says that most children are hurt by their parents, and that kids who run away are either bad kids, from bad homes or both.

Common opinion, as in many other cases, does not serve us in the case of missing children.

The best statistics that we have on missing children are very old. Newer statistics are piece-meal and incomplete.

Beyond those facts, we have the situation of effective innumeracy in our society, where people don’t understand how statistics work, and don’t pay attention to the narrow qualifiers that accompany each statistic. What those statistics tell us, is that regardless of who took the child, or if they left on their own power, it must be recognized that they must be assumed to be in danger for as long as they are missing. First and foremost, we must work to find them.


The fact of the matter is; no matter what the statistics say, each and every case must be evaluated individually to determine what actually happened THIS TIME.

Statistics indicate a line of inquiry or questioning and suggest possibilities that should not be overlooked. But what solves the case are the facts and evidence collected by the investigators, and an intelligent evaluation of that knowledge to create the theory of that crime.

Too often, arm-chair sleuths want to blurt out their initial gut reactions based on their experience in consuming “true crime” materials. They like to cast doubt on the case, and then come out with a safe-sounding opinion that they feel is backed up by statistics.

It is up to us in the majority of the responsible public to speak out when we see this and support the families and the missing, rather than let others treat them as objects for their own self-amusement.

When the case is communicated to the public, the public is given the information about that case which will best help them get involved constructively in the case – while protecting the victim as much as possible.

When you see comments along the line of “There is more to this case than meets the eye”, “There is a lot of missing information”, or “There are a lot of unanswered questions in this case”, “or, they are withholding information” this is the time to step up and say “We don’t need to know everything about this case to help this child and this family. Share the poster, and report anything you see or know to the authorities.”

If you see someone saying something horrible about the searching family, the child, or others who are involved that is the time to step up and say “Social media is not the place to report information about a crime, and gossiping about a family in crisis is disgusting. If you are gossiping, stop it. If you have information about the case, contact the authorities.”

My personal favorite is when someone refers to the victim as “not a perfect angel”, “Not completely innocent” or some other similar phrase.

Let’s just say it. Nobody is “completely innocent” Nobody is “a perfect angel”.

If that is our criteria for a victim to have recourse to the law and the support of the community, then we are all in big trouble. A plea to help find a missing child is an act of trust in a community to respond positively and humanely.

Let’s not only do that ourselves, but insist that others do the same. Our missing/unidentified persons and our searching/left behind families need our support.