Members of 12 organizations throughout Maryland were tasked with finding two teenage girls as part of a training exercise Wednesday.
The 12 organizations came together at the Public Safety Training Center on Kate Wagner Road in Westminster to undergo training on child abductions led by Derek VanLuchene, a former law enforcement officer who now consults on child abduction cases.
Carroll County Sheriff's Office Detective Bill Murray was responsible for bringing the training to the county. The tabletop exercise, which was run by the U.S. Department of Justice's Amber Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program, put the participants through a scenario in which two girls went missing after they were supposed to be spending the night at one of their houses.
The scenario broke the information up into pieces and allowed the participants, divided into four groups, to explain what they would do with the information. VanLuchene would also add input from real cases he consulted on or investigated that had similarities with the scenario.
Participants included members of the Maryland State Police; Carroll Hospital; the Baltimore County, Dorchester County, Sykesville and Westminster police departments; the Carroll County, Washington County and Worchester County sheriff's offices; Washington County Emergency Management; the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office; and the Carroll County Advocacy and Investigation.
Each of the four groups were made up of participants from different departments, allowing them to mingle and learn from each other, said Baltimore County police Sgt. Tom Insley.
Insley said his biggest takeaway from the training was seeing how different departments would file missing child reports compared to his department.
At first, the groups kept their investigations small, saying they would set searches and investigations around the areas the girls were missing from or the hotel where the girls may have been. As more information came in, groups were widening search parties to account for surrounding counties and states. The people involved also jumped from the two girls and an initial suspect to at least 11.
Ultimately, both girls were found alive in the scenario, an ending that VanLuchene has seen multiple times.
"Fortunately, most of them that I've worked on have a happy ending," he said.
The idea was to get the participants to think about the resources they have to handle a child abduction, VanLuchene said.
"We want them to put out a list of resources that might be lacking," he said.
One of the resources law enforcement should use is the state's attorney's office. During the scenario, VanLuchene would ask Carroll County prosecutors Amy Ocampo and Ashley Pamer to lend their legal expertise to show the balance between finding a child in a time-sensitive manner and doing it in a way that was legal.
It's a balance that VanLuchene highlighted often during the scenario. Being able to do a run-through of a child abduction scenario allowed the different agencies to work with the prosecutors as a team and come up with a plan, Ocampo said after the exercise.
It is not like a television show where the search warrants appear in a flash: Things can take longer, which can cause a case to slow down in a situation where time is of the essence. Ocampo said officers seemed to understand more about why they might need to wait before taking the next step after hearing the legal side.
"I think it was helpful because we were all able to see the benefits of us all being there," she said.
Carroll County has not seen a child abduction case on the scale of the scenario presented at the training, Murray said, but added it is always a possibility.
"It's one of those things that if it does happen, we want to be as prepared as possible," Murray said.
Tips for keeping your child safe
Derek VanLuchene is founder and president of Ryan United, an organization that works to bring attention to child abductions. The organization was founded in memory of VanLuchene's brother who was abducted and killed.
In addition to running Ryan United, VanLuchene consults with Team Adam with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Here are some ways he advises parents can keep their children safe.
• "The biggest thing I always tell parents is be involved with your children," he said. This includes knowing their friends, knowing where they go, who they talk to online and what online sites they go on. Every site has a potential to be dangerous, and a recent study showed that a little more than half the child abduction cases have a social media element. "That's what technology does," he said. "It allows the offender to have anonymity where they're not seen."
• Strike a balance between privacy and keeping a child safe. "It's important that your line of communication with your kids is open," VanLuchene said.
• Have information about the child, including current pictures. The more information, the more helpful, Luchene said. Child fingerprints are water-soluble, which means they evaporate, so if it's possible have a DNA swab kit done in addition to fingerprinting.
• Don't wait to tell the police if a child is missing. It's important not to wait because the first couple hours count when a child is abducted and often that is when the child is hurt or killed. It's a misconception that a person has to wait 24 hours before reporting, he said.