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U.S. Advises Lie Tests for Parents of Missing Kids

November 07, 1994|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Police departments investigating reports of missing or abducted children should assume foul play and quickly ask parents to submit to polygraph tests, according to a new Justice Department report.

Advance copies of the 220-page manual, billed as a guide to case investigation and program management, were used by law enforcement agencies investigating the South Carolina case of Susan Smith, who reported the abduction of her two sons Oct. 25 but was charged with their murder last week.

Ron Laney, director of the Justice Department's programs on missing and exploited children, called police handling of that case "a model response" and noted that federal investigators assisting local police departments followed the guide very closely.

The manual, which stresses the need to act quickly when children disappear, also recommends that law enforcement agencies broadcast reports of missing children over all police frequencies and that they file missing children reports immediately with the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

Laney said the manual, with a checklist to help investigators avoid overlooking any possibilities, should be of particular help to small police departments that have little experience or training in dealing with missing or abducted children. He added that it will address a glaring problem in the investigation of many missing-child cases: inconsistency in the way many police departments pursue such reports.

The Justice Department, which commissioned the private National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop the manual, is mailing copies to 17,000 law enforcement agencies this week. Each year, 3,200 to 4,600 children are abducted by non-family members, and 495,000 children run away, are abandoned, are abducted by family members or are otherwise lost, injured or missing, the department said.

The manual's recommendation that polygraphs be used to interview parents is expected to add to the controversy surrounding the so-called lie-detector tests. The South Carolina case, however, may bolster the argument for suspecting parents. Smith was given polygraph tests Oct. 27 and last Tuesday and, according to published reports, she failed both.

While conceding the disagreement over the validity of polygraph tests, the manual recommends using the tests early in the investigation, when suspects or parents may not sense an "accusatory purpose." Early polygraph tests also allow investigators to address derogatory information about the family quickly, the manual says.

In addition, Laney said the early use of a lie detector could help investigators rule out parental involvement quickly and allow them to focus on more promising avenues of pursuit.

Finally, the early and consistent use of lie-detector tests may help investigators sort through parents' reactions to the disappearance of a child, the manual suggests. There is no way to predict how parents will respond, the manual warns, and police should not assume that seemingly "inappropriate" behavior indicates parental involvement.

Another recent case prompted the experts who drafted the manual to instruct investigators "always (to) search the home, even if the child is missing from another location." Such searches may turn up clues to the disappearance or even the missing children themselves.

That recommendation stems from a Florida case in which Pauline Zile told authorities that her daughter, Christina, 7, was abducted from a Ft. Lauderdale flea market restroom Oct. 22. Her husband, the child's stepfather, was charged with Christina's murder Oct. 27; Pauline Zile was charged Friday.

Police had found blood on the floors and walls of their apartment and in the trunk of their car before Zile's husband led them to the child's remains buried north of West Palm Beach.

The manual also cited another well-known child-abduction case, that of Polly Klaas, to support recommendations that investigators quickly disseminate information about missing children across all police frequencies.

Just 90 minutes after Polly's abduction from her Petaluma home, sheriff's deputies questioned Richard Allen Davis, whose car was stuck in a ditch. Davis said he was sightseeing, and the police left. He was later charged with the killing.

The deputies did not detain Davis for further questioning because they were unaware of the kidnaping, which had been reported on a radio frequency that they had not been monitoring.

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