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April 2nd, 2009
09:27 AM ET

When a child disappears

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/03/31/art.crime.sandra.cantu.jpg caption="Sandra Cantu was last seen on Friday, March 27."]

Gabriel Falcon
AC360° Writer

In the hours after Sandra Cantu vanished in a mobile home park last week in California, the Tracy Police Department canvassed the area, spoke to family members, and attempted to retrace the 8-year-old girl's movements before she disappeared.

As the preliminary investigation moved forward, a police officer sat at a computer and accessed the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Formed by the FBI, the NCIC is a multi-agency shared database containing records on crimes and criminals. It is up and running 24/7 and available to every local, state, and federal law enforcement agency in the United States.

The officer who punched in the details about the Sandra Cantu case also checked a box on the report, indicating a child is missing and may be at serious risk. That red flag doesn't just reach cops across the country. It also sends the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children into action.

"It's called the CA flag, child abduction flag," says Ernie Allen, the center's President. "It prints out on our hotline, so our staff will alert a case manager." If the center believes it can be of value and assistance, experts will be dispatched to the scene.

"We have a program called Team Adam," Allen explains. Patterned after the NTSB's rapid-fire response to plane crashes, Team Adam members will act as site consultants, advising and aiding investigators, and utilizing their knowledge to help bring the child home.

"Our guys go in and have very low profiles," Allen says. "The way we can be the greatest value in these cases is to provide consultation, training, technology and forensic expertise."

Established in 1984, the center is a nonprofit organization. It is also mandated by Congress to operate a toll-free hotline, 1-800-The-Lost, for tips and leads for missing persons cases.

Allen says there are two Team Adam consultants on the ground in Tracy, California. They don't have weapons, and they can't make arrests. But they do come equipped with the experience needed in the search for Sandra. And Allen has a message of hope for the family of the little girl.

"There are scenarios under which it is our view Sandra can be found and brought home safely," he says. "Somebody out there knows. Somebody out there has information."


Filed under: Crime & Punishment • Gabe Falcon
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Andrea H.

    I think that the Amber Alert should have been issued for this child, regardless of the circumstances. Amber Alerts should be issued for all children that are missing. They should not only be limited to kidnapped children. I only hope that this child and all other missing children safely return to their families.

    April 2, 2009 at 5:32 pm |
  2. maxine

    This is becoming the "norm", children being taken everywhere. Pedophiles can not be "repaired", thus, they are a threat to society and should never ever be released from prison/jail once convicted, or they should at least be forced to wear a tracking device for the rest of their lives. My son is seven and he is never outside without me, ever!

    April 2, 2009 at 1:42 pm |
  3. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    According to Sandra's aunt, Sandra went to one friends house and left stating she was going to another friends house. What I find strange was Sandra's aunt stating they didn't know whether she made it to the second friend's house. It sounds like they don't know who the second friend may be which leaves me to believe this child was abducted by someone in their trailor park. Children will usually ask another friend that they have visited to go with them to another friends house and will give the name of the other friend. The police must press this mother and neighbors a little harder if they haven't already. Something about this just doesn't sound right.

    April 2, 2009 at 1:38 pm |
  4. Kay Lesher-White, MD

    When will it stop. Society barely has time to hear about a missing child before another is abducted. Until they figure out what creates the creeps who are doing this, I fear it will only get worse. Parents wake up!

    April 2, 2009 at 11:43 am |
  5. suzan

    I agree that the Amber Alert should be put out on all missing children immediately. Those first hours are crucial and so what if the child turns out to be a runaway, if they are out on their own, they are in a vulnerable position to be kidnapped in the first place. I'm sure most parents have exhausted all avenues they know before they even call the police anyway. If everyone knew immediately, then the kidnappers would have a harder time hiding and getting the child out of the area. Personally, if a child was missing from where I live, I would be more than happy to open my doors for an all out door to door search and be pulled over to have my car searched also. Anyone who wouldn't allow it has something to hide.

    April 2, 2009 at 11:24 am |
  6. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Nothing can be more devastating than for a parent to loose their child---nothing--I hope they find her--Looking at the statistics--and in 90% of most cases of missing children-–they have 96 hours--after which the chance of locating here decreases dramatically.

    April 2, 2009 at 11:14 am |
  7. Janie

    For an Amber Alert to be issued, there has to be some sort of information to give. Here, the child simply disappeared and there is no description about any possible suspect or the suspect's vehicle. That's not enough information for an Amber Alert. If Amber Alerts are issued without significant information about the actual abduction or if one has even occurred, then the Amber Alert would be ineffective.

    I hope this little girl is okay and returns home safely. I hope that the efforts of all these agencies brings this child home.

    April 2, 2009 at 11:08 am |
  8. Tami

    What is happening when a young girl cannot go out and play with her friends? It sickens me to think that our children can no longer be children. I have a daughter this same age and she always wants to walk to her friends house one block away from our home, and I either have to tell her no or have myself, my husband or her older brother walk her over there. She should be able to be a carefree child and not worry about the evil that lurks around every corner. I am praying that they find Sandra alive and well, no child deserves to be harmed! Bless her family!

    April 2, 2009 at 10:57 am |
  9. Angy

    I am glad that this organization can provide much needed resources to help find our children. This is another reason why law enforcement and non-profit agencies should be bridging gaps to help work toward a common goal. Child abduction and crimes against children are reaching alarming numbers in this country and it is going to take the help of everyone in the community to address this issue at its core. I also think that law enforcement should partner with local churches of various faiths in the community so that when a situation like this arise the church can be a hub and meeting place for the families to foster healing and counseling along with mental health professionals. Often times families camp out where the police are which hinder the police and become stumbling blocks for success and adds to the mental instability that results in families when difficulty like this arise. I am still hopeful that we Sandra will be found as well as Haleigh Cummings and all the other children out there.

    April 2, 2009 at 10:32 am |
  10. Enda

    this is sad. it really touches me when i hear of missing children but i am hopeful she would be found and in the best of health. my heart goes out to Sandra's family it could happen to me with one of my kids. there will be negative statements floating around but my advise to you is ingore them and be strong especially for Sandra. god is good

    April 2, 2009 at 10:22 am |
  11. Carol-Ann Wodehouse

    I lost my son Jordan to a drunk driver at the age of l9 my life is and will never the same, I hope and I pray they find her and she is alive and well....life is never the same and will not be same forever if someone does not step forward, someone must someone or something about the missing child, don't let these parents go through what my husband and I do everyday and that is the lost of the most precious thing anyone can ever give you a child.

    Peace & Prayer
    Carol-Ann

    April 2, 2009 at 10:09 am |
  12. Sandra Robertson, Ga.

    Thanks for the report, Gabe. I believe the Amber Alert should have gone out on this child. I understand her disappearance does not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert and I'm really not sure what the criteria consists of, but I really think it should apply to all missing children. We should use all agencies available.

    April 2, 2009 at 10:02 am |
  13. Lacey Sanders

    I am so glad that there is something in the system to aid those parents that have missing children. It is still sad to know we need this sytem though.

    April 2, 2009 at 9:55 am |