Missing Children:

DOJ Could Enhance Oversight to Help Ensure That Law Enforcement Agencies Report Cases in a Timely Manner

GAO-11-444: Published: Jun 21, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 25, 2011.

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Missing children who are not found quickly are at an increased risk of victimization. The National Child Search Assistance Act, as amended, requires that within 2 hours of receiving a missing child report, law enforcement agencies (LEAs) enter the report into the Department of Justice's (DOJ) National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a clearinghouse of information instantly available to LEAs nationwide. DOJ's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), the CJIS Advisory Policy Board (the Board), and state criminal justice agencies share responsibility for overseeing this requirement. As requested, GAO examined (1) CJIS's and the Board's efforts to implement and monitor compliance with the requirement; and (2) selected LEA-reported challenges with timely entry and DOJ's actions to assist LEAs in addressing them. GAO reviewed documents, such as agency guidelines, and interviewed officials from DOJ, six state criminal justice agencies, and nine LEAs selected in part based on missing children rates. The results are not generalizable to all states and LEAs, but provided insights on this issue.

CJIS and the Board have taken steps to help ensure implementation of the 2-hour entry rule, but could strengthen their oversight to better assure compliance with the rule. Starting in 2007, CJIS: (1) informed all state criminal justice agencies that LEAs will have 2 hours to enter reports of missing children into NCIC once they have collected the required data (e.g., child's biographical information); (2) provided guidance on how LEAs could document compliance with the rule; and (3) informed state criminal justice agencies that the Board had authorized CJIS to begin assessing compliance with the rule in audits starting in 2009. To help ensure compliance among all NCIC users, CJIS and the Board require state criminal justice agencies to audit all LEAs in the state that enter data into NCIC. However, CJIS and the Board have not taken steps to establish minimum audit standards for state criminal justice agencies to use in assessing LEAs' compliance with the 2-hour rule. In the absence of such standards, the selected six state criminal justice agencies GAO contacted used varied approaches to assess LEAs' compliance. For example, two were not using the 2-hour criterion, and the number of missing children records the six agencies reviewed to assess timeliness ranged from all records in one state to no records in another. The fact that the state agencies did not consistently apply the 2-hour criterion to review a sample of missing children records raises questions about the reliability of the information the agencies collect on LEA compliance. Establishing minimum standards for state agency audits could help provide CJIS with reasonable assurance that the audits contain reliable information on LEA compliance. Officials from eight of nine LEAs GAO contacted reported challenges to entering information on missing children into NCIC within 2 hours; CJIS and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) could use existing mechanisms to obtain and share information on challenges. Seven LEAs reported challenges determining whether a child is missing when there are custodial disputes. Six LEAs reported challenges obtaining information from child welfare agencies on missing children in the child welfare system. Officials from child welfare agencies in areas where LEAs reported this challenge said that they may not always have the information LEAs need, and are taking steps to ensure timely communication between their staff and LEAs. In association with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other stakeholders, in 2006 OJJDP developed (1) a model policy stating that LEAs will accept reports of missing children even when custody has not been established and (2) sample self-assessments so LEAs could enhance their responses to missing children in the child welfare system. However, eight of the nine LEAs stated that these challenges persist. DOJ does not know the extent of these challenges across all LEAs and has limited capability to conduct such an assessment. By using existing CJIS and OJJDP mechanisms--such as CJIS's training for state agencies and OJJDP-funded training for LEAs--to obtain information on the extent to which LEAs face these and other challenges and provide examples of how some LEAs have mitigated the challenges, DOJ could be better positioned to carry out its oversight of NCIC with respect to assuring compliance with the 2-hour rule. GAO recommends that CJIS and the Board consider establishing minimum standards for states to use to monitor compliance with the 2-hour rule and CJIS and OJJDP use existing mechanisms to obtain and share information on LEA challenges and successful efforts to mitigate them. DOJ concurred.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011 we reported that the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Systems (CJIS) Division and the CJIS Advisory Policy Board (the Board) had not taken steps to establish minimum audit standards for state criminal justice agencies (CJIS Systems Agencies, or CSAs) to use in assessing law enforcement agencies' (LEA) compliance with the requirement to enter reports of missing children under 21 into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) within 2 hours of receiving the report. In the absence of such standards, the selected CSAs we contacted used varied approaches to assess compliance. As a result, we recommended that CJIS consider establishing minimum audit standards that provide guidance to CSAs for assessing compliance with the timely entry requirement. In fall 2011, CJIS, in collaboration with the Board's working groups and National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Subcommittee, sponsored a topic paper for the Board which presented options for establishing minimum audit standards for CSAs, to include the timely entry of missing individuals under 21. The topic paper requested the Board determine if such standards should be adopted. During the December 2011 Board meeting, the Board considered the options presented in the topic paper and recommended and approved no change to the current process. The Board cited resource limitations as the primary reason for not endorsing the establishment of minimum audit standards. We believe that the FBI's efforts in considering establishing minimum audit standards for CSAs have been responsive to the intent of our recommendation and this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To increase the likelihood that CJIS is positioned to oversee compliance with the requirement that LEAs enter records of missing children into NCIC within 2 hours, the Director of the FBI should direct CJIS to consider, in collaboration with CSAs and the Board, establishing minimum standards that provide CJIS Systems Agencies (CSAs) guidance on assessing compliance with timely entry requirements, including applying the 2-hour criterion and how to sample missing children records.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to our first recommendation, the Board considered establishing minimum audit standards for the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Systems Agency (CSA) at its December 2011 meeting and declined to establish such standards. Without the establishment of such standards, CJIS could not consider ensuring that in future triennial audits it would assess the extent to which CSA audit programs adhered to minimum audit standards. Therefore this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To increase the likelihood that CJIS is positioned to oversee compliance with the requirement that LEAs enter records of missing children into NCIC within 2 hours, the Director of the FBI should direct CJIS to consider ensuring that in future triennial audits, CJIS assesses the extent to which CSA audit programs adhere to the minimum standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2011, we reported that eight of the nine local law enforcement agencies (LEA) we contacted reported challenges to entering information on missing children into NCIC within 2 hours. As a result, we recommended that the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) and the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) use existing mechanisms to obtain and share information on LEA challenges and successful efforts to mitigate them. In response, in July 2013, the Chairman of the CJIS Advisory Policy Board (APB) sent a letter to all CJIS System Officers, APB members and Working Group members requesting feedback regarding the challenges that LEAs face in reporting missing children to NCIC within 2 hours and examples of successful efforts to mitigate the 2-hour reporting challenge. In November 2013, DOJ provided GAO with a summary of the responses CJIS had received and stated that CJIS plans to share the information collected and lessons learned through the APB in Fall 2014. This recommendation remains open, pending confirmation in Fall 2014 that the information has been shared with APB members.

    Recommendation: To increase the likelihood that LEAs are better positioned to comply with the requirement to enter missing children records into NCIC within 2 hours, the Director of the FBI and the Administrator of OJJDP should consider opportunities to use existing mechanisms to obtain information on the extent to which LEAs face challenges--such as custodial determinations and coordination with child welfare agencies--in reporting missing children to NCIC, and share examples of successful efforts to mitigate these challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2011, we reported that eight of the nine local law enforcement agencies (LEA) we contacted reported challenges to entering information on missing children into NCIC within 2 hours. As a result, we recommended that CJIS and DOJ's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) use existing mechanisms to obtain and share information on LEA challenges and successful efforts to mitigate them. In response, between June 2011 and May 2012, the OJJDP-funded National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) updated its training materials and addressed the 2-hour requirement in 35 training sessions attended by over 2,000 state and local law enforcement officers. In October 2011, OJJDP and NCMEC also revised "Law-Enforcement Policy and Procedures for Reports of Missing and Abducted Children: A Model", to include language specifying that LEAs must enter reports of missing children into NCIC within 2 hours from the moment the minimum amount of information for NCIC entry has been obtained. We believe that OJJDP's efforts have been responsive to the intent of our recommendation and this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To increase the likelihood that LEAs are better positioned to comply with the requirement to enter missing children records into NCIC within 2 hours, the Director of the FBI and the Administrator of OJJDP should consider opportunities to use existing mechanisms to obtain information on the extent to which LEAs face challenges--such as custodial determinations and coordination with child welfare agencies--in reporting missing children to NCIC, and share examples of successful efforts to mitigate these challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

 

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