Zearing Child Enrichment Center News
EVANSDALE — The discovery of the bodies of missing cousins Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins last week has renewed interest in Iowa’s missing persons notification system.
As Gov. Terry Branstad expressed sympathy to the families of the girls, he said the state will take a look at what can be done differently when children disappear.
“We’ll review our laws and see if there’s more that we can do to be as effective as possible,” Branstad said.
The comments came as signatures supporting a proposed “Cousins Law” — which would mandate certain steps be taken at different points in an investigation — passed 10,500 signatures.
Sen. Jeff Danielson said he will introduce legislation similar to the Cousins Law proposal when legislators begin their 2013 session.
“We think there are opportunities with social media and other formal networks of communications in law enforcement that we can certainly improve the ability for the public to know what’s going on and how to help,” Danielson said.
Elizabeth’s mother, Heather Collins, said she supported a change because of what she saw as shortcomings in the criteria for Amber Alerts.
“We do need to have something different,” Heather Collins said. “When a child is missing, you shouldn’t need a car or a suspect.”
Under the Amber Alert system, law enforcement needs specific details — for instance a suspect description, a vehicle or a license plate — in order to activate the notification.
Because authorities had nothing more than the descriptions of Lyric and Elizabeth, an Amber Alert wasn’t issued when the cousins disappeared.
Police did activate an automated system that called phones in the area where the girls were last seen within an hour and 50 minutes of learning of the disappearance, according to a timeline provided by authorities.
The Cousins Law proposal would require authorities to use the existing “A Child Is Missing” system, run by a Florida organization that places phone calls containing descriptions of missing children to homes and businesses near the disappearance.
After two hours, the Cousins proposal calls for voluntary vehicle and home searches, and at the three-hour mark there would be an Amber Alert-like notification that would include interstate marquees.
Robin Arnold of Cedar Falls, who wrote the proposal and gathered signatures for its support, envisions fines for not following the protocol.
Evansdale Police Chief Kent Smock said he welcomes any improvements and is open to having new tools available to authorities, but he cautioned against mandates.
“By mandating certain things that have to be done, they are essentially handcuffing law enforcement from doing other, possibly more productive, investigations in the disappearance,” Smock said.
For instance, setting up checkpoints at a certain time, especially for a small department, may draw manpower away from chasing other leads, he said.
Smock said he wasn’t familiar with A Child is Missing when the cousins disappeared July 13, but he did request Black Hawk County’s Emergency Management Agency activate a similar telephone notification using the Everbridge system.
At 4:30 p.m., the cousins’ names were entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, a law enforcement database, and at 8:30 p.m. the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began faxing and emailing photos and description of the cousins to truck stops, stores and other locations within 100 miles.
The timeline shows police were considering abduction as a possibility early on. Interviews with sex offenders started at 7 p.m. the day of the disappearance and continued for days, and what became a nightly survey of trash receptacles began Saturday.
“We weren’t leaving any stone unturned. We didn’t take anything off the plate,” Smock said.
Investigators also examined the phones and computers of family members and checked homes. Smock said this was because statistics on child disappearances show the child often is with a family member or someone they know.
As for the vehicle searches, the Cousins Law proposes they be voluntary, and Danielson said nothing he will introduce will infringe on constitutional rights.
Vehicle checkpoints were used during the search for Lyric and Elizabeth on July 17 and July 20.
They were conducted to jog the memories of motorists who may have been out and about in the areas where the girls had been at about the time they would have passed through, Smock said.
Jeff Reinitz is a reporter with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, another Lee Enterprises newspaper.globegazette.com/news/iowa/push-grows-for-cousins-law-action/article_0646b25a-4352-11e2-92c3-0019bb2963f4.html