A Much Needed Improvement for Missing Persons

Back in 2009, NEOCH wrote about the gruesome discovery of 11 women in the home of a serial killer.  These women were in effect homeless women who made the fateful decision to reject shelter and instead found a home with a predator.  Then in 2011, a report was issued by the City of Cleveland in response to the perception that the City dropped the ball on preventing the deaths of 11 women on Imperial Ave.  The missing persons report (click on the pdf in the middle of the page) provided a series of recommendations for improving missing persons searches.  Now, in the wake of the Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus being lost for 10 to 12 years, advocates are second guessing the effectiveness of that report.  Cuyahoga County announced this week a new website to track missing persons county wide and the appointment of three staff to work the issue. 

NEOCH was critical of the original report, and we wrote to the City asking for additional steps operated by a non-profit to coordinate all these activities  We even met with the police chief to offer our assistance in 2011, but the City went their own way.  There is a limited website currently available by the City of Cleveland, but it has very little information.  The big problem right now is that if the last known residence of an individual is in Woodland then that police force is the one that takes the lead on investigating their disappearance. They may not have the expertise or skills to understand the difference between a runaway, a homeless person and a missing person, but that is the way it works in Ohio.  If Cuyahoga County Sheriff is going to step forward to take the lead on these cases that would be a big improvement.  All the steps that have been taken are good, but there is much more that needs to be done.  Our recommendations:

1.  The new County website needs to have much more information when compared to the City of Cleveland missing persons online database. They need many more pictures and detailed information about the missing person.  Since most people do not use their name when they are trying to disappear, how is just a name and age useful to the public?  It should also have the ability for trusted users to login to find out additional information and submit additional information.  This would allow family members to submit non-public information and social workers to find information.  There was a nice model that the people at Microsoft set up after Hurricane Katrina.  There are some people who just don't want to have contact with their family and are not really missing.  Right now we have no ability to separate those people from the missing. Families who suspect with credible evidence that their family member relocated to Cleveland should be able to list their family members as missing in a venue seen by Clevelanders.

2.  Agencies that deal with new people on a regular basis should receive a weekly report of people declared missing from the county.  Right now we get a weekly update of the 800 person list of everyone missing.  They do not separate the new from the old.   We could then look out for people missing in our community, and encourage those individuals to get their names off the missing persons database.   The social service providers would not violate the privacy of their clients, but just try to get the "missing" individual to put their family members at ease if they were searching for them.   We have found many people who family has been looking for, and if they had known the individual was homeless they would have stepped forward to help.  Unfortunately, many don't find their loved ones until they appear on our homeless memorial list.

3. The County Sheriff needs to start doing work with the homeless groups, the rape crisis center, youth outreach teams, mental health agencies, and alcohol and drug treatment centers if they are going to be leading the effort to find missing people.   They need to start building trusting relationships with community groups in order to help re-unite families and find missing people.

4.  We would like many more details from the County and some input on the development of this new resource.   We want the women of Imperial Avenue support group to have some input and the families of missing adults to be involved.  We could have a top notch system for finding people, and we could actually make something meaningful if we just listen to the experts.

Brian Davis

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