Vol. 78, No. 2External submissions

Police officer at traffic stop.

Anything but routine

Traffic stops key in stopping child abuse

A victim-centered approach involves officers interacting with children during all encounters — even if the biological parents are present — to try and determine if the child is in a safe environment. Credit: Texas Department of Public Safety


Since the 1920s Prohibition era, uniformed and patrol officers have been interdicting or intervening in criminal and dangerous activities. And since then, law enforcement has championed various interdiction efforts through the years — a focus on intoxicated drivers in the '80s, combating drug trafficking in the '90s and, after 2001, zeroing in on homeland security and terrorism. While each new initiative brought with it unique needs for training, awareness and resources, one common theme persisted: these efforts were primarily being carried out by front-line officers.

In 2007, Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Highway Patrol Troopers began asking questions about the role of our front-line officers in helping children. For instance, do law enforcement issues related to endangered children necessitate unique training for patrol officers? What does a missing, exploited or at-risk child look like? More specifically, how does one such child appear or behave during a traffic stop, service call or friendly encounter?

Our troopers quickly learned that simple answers to these questions didn't exist. Plus, the answers to those questions were riddled with a series of complex variables. Is the child a victim of abduction? If so, what kind? Did the child run away from home due to abuse or were they lured from home by an offender?

Although these questions and answers were familiar to experts in other fields, this knowledge had never been shared or taught to the very people — front-line officers — who were most likely to encounter an endangered child during their routine duties.

The National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains (NCMPUR) of the RCMP reports that in 2015, there were 45,288 missing person reports of children in Canada. With that information in mind, consider this unsettling 2014 data from Statistics Canada:

  • 53,647 victims of police-reported violent crime were younger than 18.
  • Among child and youth victims of police-reported family violence, three in five were victimized by a parent.
  • Youth aged 12 to 17 had the highest risk of family and non-family related sexual offences (370 per 100,000 youth), which include sexual assaults.
  • Also in 2014, there were 68,000 commissioned officers in Canada.

As a community, how many of those officers do we want searching for children who are exposed to abuse, neglect and exploitation? If your own child were to go missing, how many of those officers would you want searching for your child?

There's an incredible opportunity to protect society's most vulnerable population — our children — all across the world by properly training and using law enforcement officers.

Embracing a successful approach

The Texas Department of Public Safety employs approximately 3,000 commissioned officers with most assigned to the Texas Highway Patrol. In 2007, DPS reached out to federal agencies, prosecuting attorneys, non-government organizations, victim service professionals and child protection professionals for specialized training typically reserved for detectives or specialized units.

At that time, there were several highly effective initiatives to help identify and work with missing, exploited and at-risk children but few of them focused on training and using patrol officers.

In order to identify and locate missing, exploited and at-risk children, DPS wanted to apply the same successful intervention approach that officers already used to reduce crashes, intoxicated driving offences and drug trafficking. The department established a multi-disciplinary team of patrol officers, investigators, victim service professionals, criminal analysts, child protection professionals and training staff to ultimately create and implement the Interdiction for the Protection of Children (IPC) program.

As they evaluated the need for such training, DPS recognized that in 2008 its Troopers had conducted more than 2.5 million traffic stops but couldn't officially account for any rescued missing, exploited or at-risk children. In fact, this wasn't an isolated phenomenon. As DPS began sharing the IPC program with law enforcement agencies across the United States, Canada, Australia and England in 2012, it discovered that a lack of reporting and tracking of this type of data was systemic through most law enforcement agencies.

For example, 10 different agencies polled were responsible for a combined 3.5 million traffic stops, and they too could not account for the rescue of any missing, exploited or at-risk children. Although these agencies were encountering these children, they were not accounting for them.

This lack of information directly affects an agency's ability to combat the abuse, neglect and exploitation of children, as well as their ability to locate those who are missing. Team members also realized that proper education and increased awareness were essential for officers to effectively recognize the indicators that a child may be missing, a victim or at risk.

Police must speak to children

Most importantly, the IPC program brought to light a crucial lesson: officers must stop waiting for children to ask for help. There's a dangerous misconception that victims of any crime will instinctively call out for help; however, we now know this isn't accurate. A child may not admit to abuse or seek help due to several factors, including the age and development of the child, threats from the abuser or duration and extent of abuse.

For officers to wait for a child victim to call out, wrongfully places the burden on the child. That's precisely why the IPC program embraces a victim-centered approach when officers encounter a child. This concept involves officers interacting with children during all encounters — even if the biological parents are present — to try and determine if the child is in a safe environment.

Since the beginning of training in 2009, Texas Highway Patrol Troopers have been responsible for more than 200 child rescues and initiating more than 70 investigations of kidnapping, human trafficking, child abuse and sexual assault.

In addition, DPS has partnered with numerous agencies to conduct patrol-driven operations in an effort to find endangered children. They have also partnered with the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the United States Marshals Service to research possible behaviour-pattern indicators of predators who may offend against children.

Fundamentally, the lessons learned through the IPC program are applicable in all communities, provinces, states and countries, and aren't limited by borders or jurisdictions. In 2012, the Texas DPS began travelling to Canada to share what it has learned. It first worked with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and then returned several times, ultimately working with the RCMP.

"Through the Canadian Centre for Child Protection's work with victims, we know that they often don't ask for help for a variety of reasons. The victim-centered approach of the IPC program is an absolute best practice, and there's no doubt that training officers to uncover high-risk situations like this will save children's lives," said Christy Dzikowicz, Director of the Child Safety and Family Advocacy Division, Canadian Centre for Child Protection. "We are incredibly proud to be working with the DPS to bring this information to Canada."

DPS and Canadian law enforcement continue to work together to share information and training to improve the skills of officers for when they encounter these endangered children. DPS is proud of this premier program and committed to sharing it with as many police officers as possible.

The effort to protect children must be collaborative and expand beyond jurisdictions. There's no doubt that with the right training and information, law enforcement agencies at all levels can exponentially increase their ability to save countless children and apprehend the deplorable criminals who would do them harm. We urge any agency that has never before had access to this type of training to actively pursue it — not only to better prepare and train first-line officers but, most importantly, to protect children in all communities.

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