Gaining ground in the search for missing adults

MARSHALL – Their faces are everywhere, staring back at you and seemingly begging you to bring them home.

Approximately 10,000 children and adults are reported missing in Minnesota every year. And while the large majority of them are found unharmed, hundreds are still considered missing by year’s end, which begs the question: Are we as a society doing everything we can to make a positive difference in the outcome of these cases?

Since the abduction of Jacob Wetterling on Oct. 22, 1989, Minnesota has initiated and implemented numerous policies and laws that improve the search for missing children. That campaign was spearheaded by Jacob’s parents, Patty and Jerry Wetterling, who have worked tirelessly to create positive change for the past 26 years.

It took the disappearance of 19-year-old Brandon Swanson in May 2008, and the courageous push by his parents, Annette and Brian Swanson, to initiate change for missing adults.

On May 7, 2009, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed “Brandon’s Law,” requiring law enforcement agencies to take all missing persons reports and begin investigating right away – like they do for children under the age of 18. The law went into effect beginning July 1, 2009.

“The main thrust of the legislation was that there were a lot of protections in place for missing children under 18, but there were lots of gaps for young adults,” former House Rep. Marty Seifert said.

Seifert, a Marshall native, was the chief author of the bill in the House of Representatives, having first been approached by Brandon’s parents.

“It was almost like Government 101, on how a bill becomes a law,” Seifert said. “‘Brandon’s Law’ started with his mom sitting with her local representative at the Perkins Restaurant. She said, ‘Here’s the problem. We need to talk about how to fix it.’ She knew it wouldn’t help in her son’s case, but that it could help others in the future.”

As he looks back over his 14-year political career, Seifert admits that “Brandon’s Law” was one of his proudest accomplishments.

“It was a lot more time and work than we thought at first, but it was well worth it,” Seifert said. “I consider it one of the most important bills I authored in my 14 years. It will save lives.”

At the time Brandon Swanson went missing – on his way from a college graduation party – it was common for law enforcement in the state to delay taking missing persons reports of anyone over the age of 17. As committee members worked to develop “Brandon’s Law,” law enforcement showed the most resistance at first.

“Part of it had to do with privacy, especially regarding cell phones,” Seifert said. “Technology was emerging then, so there were discussions about privacy and when can they ping you and when can’t they. And if some kid is just gone from a party for two days, should we call the calvary? Those were the initial concerns law enforcement had, so we had to put a lot of framing around the bill.”

Swanson’s Chevy Impala was found the following afternoon with the help of cell phone records that showed the location of his last call. Unfortunately, Brandon is still missing, as is his cell phone and items he was wearing that evening.

Swanson’s case was somewhat unique in that three counties were involved due to the area his vehicle was found in, the location of the last cell phone ping and the direction agencies believed the young man walked. Those jurisdiction questions are now answered with “Brandon’s Law,” as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension clearly defines them.

The new law also replaces the word “child” in the outdated law (Minnesota Missing Child Act) with the word “person,” helping to do away with any waiting periods for reporting missing individuals.

“The BCA really took the new components that ‘Brandon’s Law’ brought to missing persons and they ran with it,” Annette Swanson said. “Now when someone calls and wants to make a report of a missing person, law enforcement has to take the report and it has to be investigated to determine that person’s status.”

The model policy in the Response to Reports of Missing and Endangered Persons gives several examples of what constitutes “endangered.” Some of the circumstances that indicate a missing person is at risk of physical injury or death include:

the person’s disappearance was not voluntary

the person is missing under known dangerous circumstances

there is evidence the person is in need of medical attention or prescription medicine

the person does not have a pattern of running away or disappearing

the person is mentally impaired

the person has been the subject of past threats or acts of violence

the person is under the age of 21 and at least one other factor exists

“Once the investigation is complete, and they decide that ‘yes, they are missing and are endangered,’ then they have to take action and search for them,” Swanson said. “The hope is that reports are being handled better than in Brandon’s case because everybody deserves that. You’re calling because you have a reason to. Your son, daughter, roommate or whoever is missing, and you deserve proper response and action to that.”

No longer can law enforcement delay accepting a missing person report based on factors such as no foul play suspected, the person has been missing for a short amount of time, the reporting lacks a familial or other relationship with the missing person or the circumstances suggest that the disappearance may be voluntary.

“In the circumstances where it’s suspicious or dangerous, the benefit of the doubt should go to life-saving efforts,” Seifert said. “I want to give a big thank you to our law enforcement folks who helped us craft the law. We think it’s a cooperative system now which sets some standards in place, but also gives a greater chance for rescue operations to take place.”

Seifert noted that the committee first focused on missing young adults, but then expanded to include older adults who might wander off. The premise was that regardless of one’s age or circumstance, no one should have to lose their life because of search delays.

“We were originally thinking about 18- to 20-year-olds because they’re vulnerable,” he said. “They often make bad life choices, or in some cases, they’re just in negative positions and it’s not their choice. But then we also started thinking about older adults with dementia. Obviously, this bill applies to them as well.”

Teenagers with newfound freedoms gained with a driver’s license open the door to increased risks, as do college students on their own for the first time. Add in the use of alcohol or other drugs, and the risk goes up even higher.

Contributing factors in risky behavior include the combination of immaturity and inexperience. While adolescents and young adults should be accountable for their choices and actions, there is science that suggests reasons for their questionable decision-making abilities. Recent research found that areas of the brain involved in judgment and decision making are not fully developed until around age 25.

“The No. 1 job of government is protecting the citizens,” Seifert said. “That’s one of the primary objectives. “We don’t know how many lives have been saved across the country because of ‘Brandon’s Law,’ but it started in Marshall, Minnesota, and took off like wildfire.”

Seifert was proud of the fact that “Brandon’s Law” received bi-partisan support, passing unanimously in the House. Since its enactment, at least four other states have modeled similar legislation after Minnesota’s law.

“It shows that people can work together, across party lines, to accomplish something good,” Seifert said. “And it became a pattern for other states. Minnesota was one of the first to work with law enforcement to help use cell phone pinging. We wanted to make sure they had the tools they needed but that the law didn’t go overboard. It took a lot of careful thought.”

Seifert noted that Minnesota has been a leader and a path-breaker in a lot of areas in addition to the new missing persons law.

“Minnesota led the way with Adopt-a-Highway, charter schools, open enrollment and continues to be an innovative leader,” he said. “This just adds to the pool.”

Though it’s taken time and a cultural shift in thinking, Swanson and Seifert believe “Brandon’s Law” is making a difference.

“The hope would be that every state within the country would have something similar so that all adults would be responded to,” Swanson said. “There’s been a cultural shift where people are realizing that a missing person is a missing person no matter what their age. We’re beginning to see that, acknowledge that, accept that and take action on that.”

Seifert agreed, stating that there has been training in the form of continuing education for law enforcement and that agencies appear to be implementing the law. It’s taken a big cooperative effort, but one that means a lot to lawmakers and citizens alike.

“I still have the pen Pawlenty signed ‘Brandon’s Law’ with,” Seifert said. “It’s a special piece of legislation that we think makes a difference.”