Americans are captivated by missing child stories, haunted by the nagging specter of “What if this happened to my child?”
The year 2018 was punctuated by a handful of missing child cases that were covered by mainstream media, including Jayme Closs, Mollie Tibbetts, and Karlie Gusé. Interest in missing children cases continues to grow with the production of documentaries and docuseries about famous missing child cases, like Madeline McCann and Jan Broberg. This cultivated curiosity can only benefit the ultimate goal of keeping a missing person’s face in the public eye in the interest of unearthing unexplored leads in their cases. Here is a list of fast facts about missing child cases to inform coverage in the media and online.
Law enforcement in the United States received reports of
424,066 missing children in 2018.
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing
Person File states that as of December 31st, 2018, there were 85,459
active missing person records in which children under the age of 18 account for
It’s estimated that 1,435 kidnappings occur every year, but
due in large part to a majority of those being familial abductions, not all
have likely been reported.
The Second National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted,
Runaway, and Throwaway Children released by the Department of Justice in 2002,
spanning the years of 1997-1999, reported that 203,900 of the 797,500 reported
missing children in a one-year period were abducted by family members, and 58,200
were abducted by non-relatives. 115 of those reported cases were classified as
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited
Children, since 1965, there have been 325 reported infant abductions in the
United States. Of those abducted children, 140 were taken from healthcare
facilities, 138 were taken from the home, and 47 were abducted from other locations.
Of those abducted infants, 16 remain missing.
Not all missing minors and children qualify for Amber
Alerts. America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response Alerts are emergency
messages broadcast when a law enforcement agency determines that a child has
been abducted and is in imminent danger. The broadcasts include information
about the child and the abductor, including physical descriptions as well as
information about the abductor’s vehicle—which could lead to the child’s
recovery. Missing children and teenagers who are classified as “runaways” may
not qualify for an Amber Alert because there is no evidence of abduction.
When people think of abductions, they likely think of
stranger danger and violent attacks. However, in 2016, 60% of all AMBER Alerts
that were issued were for abductions committed by a family member.
Since 1997, the AMBER Alert Program has been responsible for
the safe recovery of 957 children.
The AMBER Alert system was named for Amber Hagerman, who was
abducted and killed in 1996.
Missing Children in Media
Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who disappeared on his way to
his bus stop in Manhattan, was one of the first missing children to be featured
on a milk carton.
Media coverage of missing child cases has been elevated in recent years by American television personality John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh became an anti-crime advocate following the disappearance and murder of his son, Adam Walsh, in 1981.
The disappearance of 3-year-old Madeline McCann is often regarded as one of the highest-profile missing child cases globally.
NCMEC received 23,500 reports of endangered runaways in
2018. One in seven of those children were estimated to be victims of sex
The average age of a child sex trafficking victim is 15
years old, according to NCMEC reports.
Child sex trafficking has been reported in every single
state in the United States.
The age group of children targeted by strangers in
abductions are female children aged 12-17. This aligns with approximate age
range of minor children targeted for sex trafficking.
The average minor victim of online predatory behavior is 15
years of age.
Of the predators targeting minor victims online, 82% are male, 9% are female, and 9% could not be determined.
Online predators most commonly target children on social media, photo sharing platforms, and video gaming platforms.
Autism & wandering
Between 2007 and 2017, 952 children with autism were
reported missing to NCMEC. In 61% of cases, those children were classified as “endangered
runaways” or lost, injured, or otherwise missing (20%).
Almost half of the cases of children were autism reported (48%) were recovered within one day of going missing, and 74% were recovered within 7 days.
We can help…
If your child has gone missing, call Lauth Investigations International today for a free consultation and learn how our expertise and experience can provide you answers in the search for your missing child. Call 317-951-1100, or visit us online at www.lauthmissinstg.wpengine.com
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.
Many individuals who lived through natural disaster in the year 2018 lost loved ones to violent forces of nature. National news has been inundated, not only with updated death totals, but also long lists of names belonging to individuals who went missing during the disaster. The initial report in a missing persons case is a springboard for many complicated processes and procedures conducted by law enforcement and private investigators. Every relevant piece of information about the missing person must be collected, their last known whereabouts searched. If law enforcement determines the person is in immediate danger, or if they’re a minor, search teams are dispatched to the surrounding areas. The family makes themselves sick with worry. Spreading like a crack in a dam, the web of processes that stem from the first report can cause a cacophony of confusion. Now imagine that multiplied by five, or ten times. Or 1,276 times.
At its peak, that was the highest estimated number of missing persons during the coverage of California’s Camp Fire. Often, stories about mass groups of people vanishing are couched in mystery, intrigue, or even the paranormal, like the disappearance of the infamous Roanoke Colony that vanished off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Or Flight 370 of Malaysia Airlines, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew to Beijing when it mysteriously went missing over the South China Sea in 2014. In 2018, however, instances of long lists of missing persons following a single event have been instigated by tragedy—not intrigue.
State officials addressing this number have assured the public this number is an overestimation. One of the most complicated aspects of searching for missing persons during and after a natural disaster is the major breakdown in communication. During a natural disaster, individuals will often report loved ones missing when they are unable to contact, which could be for a myriad of reasons (downed power lines, lack of Wi-Fi, displacement, injury, etc.) After a few days, the loved one is able to establish a lifeline and is able to reach out to their family and friends. State officials claim the reporting individuals often do not call to follow up with emergency operations teams to let them know their loved one has been located.
Like in cases of individuals going missing, survivors of Hurricane Michael have had to turn to crowdsourcing in order to track down missing loved ones, an effort crippled by a devastated infrastructure and incapacitated communication systems. Police departments have become inundated with missing persons reports and individuals are turning to multiple entities in order to get answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones—individuals like Tracey Stinson of Fort Walton Beach. Her father lived in Youngstown at the time of the hurricane, and had not heard from him in many days. “I actually tried calling a store he shops at that’s near his home that was gone. So I was unable to reach them so then the next step was contact the sheriff’s office. I just kept calling every several hours to see if I could catch them with a phone line that was operating and there was no luck.”
Desperate parents and loved ones also combed Facebook for news or tips, and implored others for any information they might have about missing loved ones. Despite a classification of a Category 4 storm, there were many in the panhandle who doubled down inside their homesteads, rather than evacuate.
One of these people was Nicholas Sines, who lived in Panama City. His mother, Kristine Wright, begged him to go to a shelter before the storm ripped through the city. But Nicholas was steadfast, “I’m staying here.” Kristine went six days without hearing from her son before she took to Facebook, imploring other users to share any information they might have. “I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating,” she told The New York Times. “As his mother, my heart hurts.” It goes beyond earnest timeline posts and comments, however.
In 2014, following the terrorist attacks on Paris that claimed 129 lives, Facebook launched what’s known as its Safety Check Feature. The Safety Check Feature is turned on by Facebook administrators in the wake of any type of displacement disaster, whether it be natural or at the hands of man. The system sends out a notification to users in the effected area, prompting users to mark themselves as “safe,” if they are able. This action places an item in the user’s feed that will alert others on their friends list that they are okay.
Social media is not the only recourse for those desperate to get in touch with a missing loved one in the wake of a natural disaster. Platforms like CrowdSource Rescue have been connecting concerned individuals with their loved ones living in areas effected by natural disasters. It allows citizens to file a report for a missing person, which places their data on a map that directs rescue teams to the most affected areas. Company co-founder, Matthew Marchetti, told NPR, “We’re like a ride share company for disasters.”
Unfortunately, hurricanes were not the only natural disaster erasing entire communities in 2018. In a gross irony, the town of Paradise, California was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble after it was consumed by a behemoth wildfire. The pictures of the devastation are truly haunting, evoking scenes from post-apocalyptic Hollywood films. Before the blaze erupted, Paradise was a town of around 27,000 people. It’s beautiful sights and small-community atmosphere made it a popular place for retirees to begin the third act of their lives. As such, a majority of the remains pulled from the debris and wreckage were found to be retirement age or older.
The California Camp Fire will go down in the history books as the deadliest and most devastating wildfire the nation has ever seen. Officials have only recently announced the fire has been 100% contained with fire-lines. It burned 150,000 acres (ten times the size of Manhattan), claimed the lives of 85 Californians, and left thousands displaced and homeless in tent cities. In the chaos, 200 people are still unaccounted for. In the past few weeks some reports listed the number of missing as high as 1,276 on November 17th, but just like the circumstances during Hurricane Michael, that number dropped dramatically once displaced Californians were able to find a line of communication to their families.
Investigators have been working for months attempting to identify the source of the California Campfire, but no single cause has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, rescue officials are still sifting through the rubble. Kory Honea of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department told the Huffington Post that they could not say with certainty how long the search will take, “My sincere hope is the majority of people on that list…will be accounted for.”
The dramatic drop in the number of missing is not unlike that of the Sonoma County Tubbs Fire in 2017. The number of missing during the Tubbs Fire was almost double that of the Camp Fire, but dropped to just 22 as individuals were located or found deceased. However, during the Tubbs Fire, search and rescue officials opted not to publish the names of those feared missing under caution during a disaster that was constantly in flux. Kory Honea had a different mindset: Publishing the list meant drawing out information from the public that could help officials whittle the list of missing from a sequoia down to a splinter. When questioned about whether or not possible inaccuracies on the list might cause issues, Honea said, “I can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. It is important for us to get the information out so we can get started identifying these individuals.”
Identification of the remains found is a grueling process, not only for officials involved in Camp Fire, but any natural disaster in the United States. Officials in paradise have collected DNA samples from those who tragically perished in the inferno, but are left with little recourse to identify them without help from the public. Jim Davis, the Chief Federal Officer of ANDE told ABC, “The only way we can identify those people is to have family members submit reference samples so we can match the two.” At the Family Assistance Center in Paradise, ANDE collected 68 family donor samples, but it’s nowhere near enough. Hundreds of family samples will be needed in order to confirm victims’ identities. Davis attributes the community’s hesitance towards this identification measure to the bleak confirmation of their loved one’s tragic demise, “As we’ve collected samples from people, you know we see this emotion that comes with accepting the possibility that their loved ones are gone.”
Since the development of DNA forensic technology, mass collection and catalog of DNA samples has been the subject of privacy debate. While everyone has a right to privacy, there are monumental benefits to a large database of DNA samples that go beyond victim identification. As such, legal professionals at Fordham University issued a report proposing principles that find the middle in the DNA privacy debate. The abstract reads:
Rescue officials have the monumental task of containing a natural disaster, searching the effected area for victims of its fatal destruction, and finally giving names to the remains—a process that can take weeks or even months. Meanwhile, Americans across the nation wait with bated breath for information about their loved ones living in or around Paradise, California. Relief organizations from FEMA to the Red Cross have online resources with steps private citizens can take to find information about missing persons after a natural disaster. While the reality of submitting one’s DNA for identification purposes might impose an emotional toll that’s too great for some, it is one of the most effective way to get definitive answers. Families can find closure in knowing the fate of their lost relative or friend.
The Red Cross offers many tips and strategies for locating and reaching out to loved ones that go beyond the straightforward. In addition to calling other family members and utilizing social media tools, individuals are also encouraged to call or visit places their loved one was known to frequent, like Tracey Stinson did when she asked around at her missing father’s usual grocery store. Resources also recommend calling during off-peak hours to increase their chances of getting through to an operator or official.
Following Camp Fire, many families and single individuals spent their Thanksgiving in warehouses, shelters, and tent cities in grocery store parking lots, with everything they own in a few small suitcases. For many, there is no home to return to when the natural destruction is finally snuffed out. According to relief organizations throughout the United States, the name of the game now is reunification—doing whatever is possible to reconnect those displaced by tragedy to their remaining loved ones. For example, one of the many reunification resources offered by FEMA is a collaborative effort with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, supporting all measures to return minors under the age of 21 to their parents or guardians. The American Red Cross has a similar database project called Safe and Well, which is an online database designed to help reunited families. Regardless of the scale of the disaster, Safe and Well is administered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and works closely with the local Red Cross Chapter of the area in question. While many will experience the miracle of reunification, the terrible reality is that so many more will be left with unanswered questions.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on investigation and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) contains over 89,000 active missing persons cases (as of May 2018). That’s over 89,000 families who are left with a gaping hole in their lives and in their households—missing fathers who taught their children to ride bikes and were never too busy to help out with a science project—mothers who made PB&J sandwiches just right, and never forgot to leave the hall light on. Most notably, many families are left without half of their household income when a parent or guardian goes missing. The missing person may have set up a life insurance policy to ensure their families would be cared for in the event of their death, but stymied law enforcement have recovered no remains, so the insurance company refuses to pay out. The family is left without any soil to begin filling the hole where the missing loved one once stood.
The emotional roller coaster that ensues when a loved one goes missing is fraught with fear, confusion, and desperation for answers. Every waking moment, you wring your hands, hoping the loved one is safe and simply unable to communicate for rational reasons. Days go by—you cooperate with investigators and give them all the available information you have on the missing person. Weeks pass, but life goes on, even amidst a tragedy. When you consider the financial ramifications of picking up after a partner or spouse vanishes, the numbers are discouraging. A 2012 report by Legal Momentum determined the median income for two-parent families was $89,455. The median income for a single mother household was $25,493, while a single father’s income is $36,471. Those single parent incomes account for 31% and 40% of the two-parent income, respectively. How is a single parent suddenly supposed to take care of their family when nearly half their household income evaporates following the disappearance of their partner or spouse?
In the days or weeks following the death of a parent or loved one, the beneficiary of their life insurance policy will contact the company and submit a death certificate to prove the owner of the policy is deceased. In the case of a missing person, there is no death certificate without first coordinating what is called a “presumption of death.” The Indian Evidence Act, Section 108 states presumptions of death can only be made when a person has been missing for at least seven years from the date of the initial missing persons report. This is known as the First Information Report (FIR). After the mandatory period has passed, the beneficiary may receive the claim.
In addition to the too-familiar scenarios normally surrounding missing persons—people who run away, people who are abducted, people who fall off of cruise ships or disappear from trails in national parks, etc.—other events that often fall under this legislation are missing persons who vanish during the calamity of natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes. After the flood that devastated Uttarakhand in 2013, P Chidabaram, the Finance Minister of India, asked the country’s largest life insurance provider, Life Insurance Corporation of India, to waive the traditional seven year period, having the company sign indemnity bonds so claims could be closed swiftly. The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season was particularly devastating, with two of the total eight hurricanes rated a category three or above. Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle like tissue paper, blowing Mexico Beach completely off the map. Initially, 285 people were unaccounted for in the town’s population, but was later reduced to 46 as residents were either located post-evacuation, or rescued from the wreckage. The California Camp Fire has killed 60 people to date—the deadliest in history—has displaced thousands of families attempting to outrun the flames, with many unable to contact their loved ones and let them know they’re safe. On November 14, 2018, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released a list of 103 people who have been reported missing since the blaze began. “If your name is on the list, it means that someone is looking for you,” Sheriff Kory Honea said. “Let us know that you’re okay, so that we can stop our search for you and start looking for someone else.” That list has now swelled to 300 names and is expected to continue climbing.
Working closely with law enforcement is a major tenant of a successful claim on a missing persons’ life insurance policy, particularly on the presumption of death. The Indian Evidence Act only requires a beneficiary to wait seven years from the date of the FIR before filing the claim, but depending on where you live in the United States, law enforcement can use evidence to prove a missing persons’ death, even when a body cannot be found—for example, the case of Mike Williams, a man who went missing on a duck-hunting trip in Florida in 2000. Police found his boat floating abandoned on Lake Seminole, which prompted them to drag the lake in search of his remains. When no trace was found, authorities formed the theory Mr. Williams had fallen off the boat and was subsequently eaten by alligators. This theory of the accident explained why no body was ever recovered, allowing his widow to obtain a death certificate and collect on his $1 million-dollar insurance policy. Seventeen years after her husband was reported missing, Denise Williams was indicted on murder charges after her second husband (and Mike’s best friend), Brian Winchester confessed to killing Mike in conspiracy with his wife for the insurance money.
Law enforcement’s theory about Mike Williams disappearance created a loophole you could drive a truck through, but not all beneficiaries of life insurance policies can depend on this loophole. In some states, with the help of legal representation, beneficiaries of the missing insured can begin legal proceedings that would accelerate the issuance of a death certificate, but this comes with a much higher burden of proof, and demands a pool of evidence that would stand up to the most thorough, independent investigation procedures. In the event such evidence of death cannot be found, there is a procedure in place for those who must wait seven years following the filing of a FIR. After seven years, the beneficiary of the insured, or the heir of the insured, must submit the following documents to the insurance company:
- Claimant’s statement form signed by the nominee of the legal heir
- Copy of the FIR and the missing person’s report filed with the police
- Original policy contract documents or indemnity bond
- Copy of death certificate, or a court order presuming the person is dead after the lapse of seven years
When a loved one goes missing, a family is left in a stasis, paralyzed by their fear and ‘what-if’ games while the world selfishly continues to spin. Eventually, families need to pick up the pieces, a process eased by the financial support set up for them by the missing insured, but only if they can file a claim. If you have recently set up a life insurance policy for your family, educate them on the process of filing a claim should you go missing without a trace.
In the aftermath of a tragedy, law enforcement, media, and families of the victims can have difficulty rationalizing how something so horrible could have transpired. This is certainly the case surrounding the Hart family from California. Strange circumstances surround the plunge of their family’s SUV off a 100-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California. Six members of the family were declared deceased after being pulled from the wreckage. Hannah and Devonte Hart still remain missing. The FBI press release following the investigation of the March 26th crash reads as follows:
“The bodies of a Washington couple and four of their six children were found in and around a vehicle that had crashed over a cliff and landed along the surf line. Two of the couple’s children are currently unaccounted for and their whereabouts remain unknown.”
Those “unaccounted for children” are Hannah Jean Hart, 16, and Devonte Hart, 15. The married couple, Jennifer Jean Hart and Sarah Margaret Hart, both 38, were killed. Even more tragic, four of their children Markis, 19, Abigail, 14, Ciera, 12, and Jeremiah, 14 were all subsequently found deceased, having been thrown from the vehicle. Initially, first responders were only able to locate Markis, Abigail, and Jeremiah when they pulled five bodies from the wreckage. Operating on the belief the three missing children were alive somewhere, crews began a grid search. Twelve days later, the remains of Ciera were found in the water not far from the crash site.
How could this have happened? A beautiful family was killed tragically, with two of the children still missing. Although investigators cannot determine for sure whether Hannah and Devonte were in the SUV at the time of the crash, they have every reason to believe they were, as close friends of the Harts reported the family of six often crammed into the SUV for “weekend adventures.” Operating on the assumption the two children were present, investigators now believe the two children might be traveling together following the crash.
Many people nationwide recognized Devonte’s grinning face on the FBI’s missing persons flyer from a photo that went viral in 2014 following the Ferguson demonstrations. At a Portland demonstration, after a grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Devonte was photographed in a tearful embrace with Portland officer, Sgt. Bret Barnum. Devonte’s “Free Hugs” sign caught the sergeant’s eye. It was an image of hope in a tumultuous time of civil demonstration and protest. While Devonte’s face might have been famous around the country, his level of notoriety has not unearthed any reliable leads to the whereabouts of either of the missing Hart children.
Neighbors who heard about the tragic accident were reminded of instances where both Devonte and his older sister, Hannah, had paid several visits to their home. The DeKalbs, who lived next door to the family in Woodland, recalled more than a few instances leading them to believe the Hart children might have been abused. One night, Dana DeKalb woke up to Hannah Jean Hart standing over her in her bedroom. The 16-year-old had jumped from her second story window, crossed the yard in the dead of night, and entered the DeKalb’s house in search of sanctuary. It wasn’t long until the rest of the family showed up on the doorstep looking for Hannah. When the Hart mother introduced all of the children, he was shocked to learn Hannah was sixteen. She was so petite, he believed she was about seven years old.
Following that strange incident, there were many occasions Devonte showed up on their doorstep asking for food. His parents were refusing to feed him because he was being punished. That’s when the DeKalbs finally decided to call Child Protective Services (CPS). The Friday after making the call, the DeKalbs observed a caseworker knock on the door of the Hart home, but shortly leave after there was no answer. On Monday, when the caseworker returned, the Harts were gone.
This was not the first time Jennifer and Sarah Hart had dealt with CPS. In September of 2008, when Hannah was six years old, she contacted CPS with information her mother had been bruising her with a belt. When asked by investigators what had happened, Sarah and Jennifer told authorities Hannah had fallen down the stairs. In 2010, a teacher of Abigail Hart’s was forced to contact CPS when she noticed bruising on the child’s abdomen. In April 2011, Sarah Hart pleads guilty to beating Abigail, despite Abigail having told investigators Jennifer did it. Sarah is given one year’s probation for misdemeanor domestic assault. After her plea, Sarah and Jennifer pull all six children out of public school and begin homeschooling them until the time of the crash.
This background on both Sarah and Jennifer Hart is of interest to authorities investigating the crash, because at the time of the accident, Jennifer Hart was legally intoxicated. The tox-screen on Sarah Hart came back posthumously positive for traces of a Benadryl-like substance in her bloodstream. Two of the three children found in the car were also found to have the same substance in their systems. Forensic analysis of the scene led investigators to determine the SUV was at a complete stop before accelerating off the edge of the cliff. In addition, there were no skid marks found near the scene whatsoever, leading to the conclusion the accident might not have been an accident at all.
Were the Harts trying to escape the invasive eye of CPS when they got into the SUV? Were they intentionally trying to end their lives and the lives of their children? Friends of the family are quick to discount not only the theory the children were abused, but the theory Sarah and Jennifer Hart were intentionally running from police. Zippy Lomax, a Portland photographer who had known the family for six years, told the Washington Post Sarah and Jennifer were “incredibly invested in their children. They inspired me deeply and just felt like the most incredible people that the world needs more of,” she said.
Since the discovery of Ciera Hart’s remains in the weeks following the crash, law enforcement now presume Hannah and Devonte may be deceased. Human remains were found near the crash site, as well as scraps of clothing, including a girl’s size 10 jeans and a child’s size 3 shoe, but no connection has yet been made to either Hannah or Devonte. Despite the presumption of fatality, the FBI still has the children listed as missing.
Hannah Jean Hart is sixteen years old with black eyes and black hair. She may be wearing a retainer. Her full-page FBI flyer can be found here.
Devonte Hart is fifteen years old with black eyes and black hair. He may be wearing a fedora hat. His full-page FBI flyer can be found here.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.