SPECIAL REPORT: Arkansas ramping up efforts to protect missing children

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ALMA, Ark. (KNWA) — According to the Arkansas Attorney General’s office, the Natural State has more than 500 unsolved missing persons cases ranging from children to adults.

Arkansas is on track to lead the country when it comes to responding to child abductions, by dedicating resources and new legislation to the cause.

Since 1996, Bentonville-based Walmart and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have partnered together on programs like the Missing Children’s Network bulletin boards, placing them in all Walmart stores, distribution centers and Sam’s Clubs.

But the world’s largest retailer is not the only organization putting a tremendous amount of resources towards finding missing children.

If a child goes missing, time is the enemy.

“When a child is kidnaped, and the end result is the child losing their life, that usually happens within the first two hours,” says Colleen Nick, the founder of the Morgan Nick Foundation.

In Alma, Arkansas, Morgan Nick’s kidnapping case remains active after nearly 24 years.

“We still get leads called in on her case pretty much every week, which is very unusual,” her mother said.

Morgan Nick was last seen at a little league baseball game in June 1995. She had joined some friends to catch fireflies, and was last seen standing near her mother’s car where she had stopped to empty sand from her shoes. She was abducted by an unidentified man at the age of 6.

Her case file is an entire room at the Alma Police Department.

“One out of six missing children is recognized because someone sees them on some type of media,” Colleen Nick said.

Morgan was one of the first kids to be featured on Walmart’s Missing Children’s Network bulletin boards.

Colleen says, “they put their very first one up in the Alma store.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website, since 1996, more than 16,000 children have been featured on these boards, with over 14,000 recovered. 

It also goes on to say that to date, 257 children have been recovered as a direct result of the boards being in Walmart stores. 

“The fact is to 257 families, that’s 100%, because their child was found and came home,” Colleen Nick said.

Colleen Nick launched the Morgan Nick Foundation in 1996 to provide further help.

Its purpose started as a way to help families find missing children and to work as a liaison with law enforcement, but has since evolved into much more.

“What happened over the past 24 years is we began to see a need in the population of missing adults in our state, and how they don’t have resources, and how there’s no one for them to call. There’s nowhere to turn for help,” Colleen Nick said.

Starting this year, the foundation will begin to actively help find missing adults.

Colleen’s work goes even further, with her support for a bill three years in the making. HB1674, now Act 913, is sponsored by Representative Rebecca Petty.

It authorizes Arkansas to become the first state to form a certified child abduction response team, or C.A.R.T.

Dr. Cheryl May, the Director of the Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock, coordinates the efforts. 

“These are pre-organized, pre-practiced teams that are multi-disciplinary and multi-agency. It’s all about being able to react to an instance where a child is missing, abducted, or endangered as quickly as possible,” May said.

Twelve certified C.A.R.T.’s around the state can mobilize within an hour of an abduction.

“Each group would have their own set of tasks to do. There is search and rescue, investigation, and all of that is pre-organized, and everybody should know what their roles and responsibilities are,” May said.

This type of exercise requires a remarkable amount of training.

The natural state is the first in the country to even attempt state-wide certification.

“It took quite a bit of work on everybody’s part, and we also had to do a huge major exercise that we did out at the Game and Fish,’ May said. “I think this speaks volumes to the level of cooperation between and among agencies across our state. The fact that we were able to pull this off is extraordinary.”

It’s a collaboration that hopes to make up for lost time, so the missing don’t become just another face on the wall.

“If she [Morgan] survived, my hope has always been that she did — and we would find her and bring her home. If she survived and if she’s out there and if she’s waiting to be rescued, I want to be standing on the front lines. I want to be able to look her in the eye and say, ‘I have always fought for you and I have always believed that you will come home.'”

C.A.R.T. teams have to train at least once a year to meet re-certification requirements.

Dr. May says Amber Alert and the Technical Assistance Center provides the training, and is a critical resource to C.A.R.T.’s certification.

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