June 23, 2013 – There are people that are good at their jobs regardless of the countless atrocities they witness and mounting frustrations and pressures they face. They understand the challenges and recognize the days and nights of a parent's living nightmare because they have children too. They don't fall down and they don't fall apart – they band together and stay strong because that's what they do. If you hire the right man for the right job - you have a fighting chance.
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte, Western District of Texas (photo left) – photo courtesy of www.usmarshals.gov
Robert R. Almonte, U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas presented child abduction statistics during a news conference at the federal courthouse in downtown El Paso against a dramatic and heart wrenching backdrop of the faces of missing children. Texas currently has 4,400 active missing children cases and 147 of those children are in El Paso County alone (delineated in red).
Everything about Texas is big – oil rigs, ranches, rodeos, football - it even has three of the four fastest growing cities in the United States – Austin, Dallas and Houston. Texas is the second most populated state in the country with just over 26.5 million people according to the 2010 U.S. census report and it is the largest state with a land mass over 268,000 square miles. Take into consideration that Canada's population is just over 34 million and you can readily understand the difficulties and constraints that Texas sustains in trying to protect its own.
46,000 children are abducted in Texas every year. I try to picture 46,000 children. I can't. Is that the number of people in attendance at a football stadium or rock concert? How many schools would it take to encompass the enrolment of 46,000 children?
Reading the latest FBI statistics for parental abductions, I lose my next thought. I am unable to process what is in front of me…unable to turn the page…unable to let go of children's faces that once were here – and now they are not. I feel locked in a reverberating timeframe that palindromically skips back and forth in my heart like a scratched and wounded record. I read the same sentences over and over again looking for a hint or a clue of redeemable salvage.
Marshal Almonte selected his words carefully shielding me from the images of children's broken bodies that his heart and mind have memorized. It is only through this painfully quiet and disturbing awareness that I begin to feel the weight of his words – the weight of his world. He returns to work everyday with duty, integrity, and hope and he will tell you that he is honoured and privileged to serve in this position.
Veronika Bradley: Marshal Almonte, you recently reunited two small boys with their biological father. Can you tell me about this case?
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte: We just concluded an investigation of a parental abduction and I'm very happy and pleased to tell you that three-year-old William Sage Walker and six-year-old Thomas Darwin Walker were rescued and reunited with Tom Walker, their biological father who gained full custody of the boys from the courts last May in San Antonio. Their biological Mom, Brandy Romano and Raymond Romano, her current husband, kidnapped the boys and went to Mexico, drove through several Central American countries and from there made it to the Costa Rican border.
The United States Marshal Service has representation at Interpol and we also work very closely with diplomatic security within the State Department – and with all of these services combined, including reaching out to law enforcement authorities in Costa Rica, we were able to locate Brandy and Raymond Romano and the two little boys. Mr. and Mrs. Romano were taken into custody, put on an airplane and then sent to Houston where the Gulf Coast Violent Offender Task Force (division of the U.S. Marshal's Service) placed them under arrest based on the outstanding warrant. From there they will be brought to San Antonio to answer kidnapping charges.
This is a tremendous success story; however, they don't always end like this. This is the kind of case that gives everyone hope. Another recent success story involved those three brave, young women that were abducted as children in Cleveland, Ohio - who were missing for years and years. The bottom line is that they are with their families now, which should give hope to parents with missing children. It is important to never, never, never – give up hope.
In addition to being a U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas, Robert Almonte also sits on the advisory board for the Texas Regional Office at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Prior to his present position as U.S. Marshal, he was the Deputy Chief with the El Paso Police Department for 25 years.
Veronika Bradley: Is there an escalation in child trafficking in Texas?
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte: We're hearing reports of an increase in child trafficking in relation to labour and forced prostitution but we don't investigate those cases. The U.S. Marshal Services gets involved if the people are fugitives.
In November 2001, around the time of Thanksgiving, we had a tragic incident. Alejandra Flores, a little five-year-old girl was abducted from a Wal-Mart store here in El Paso. I'll never forget the video image of seeing Alejandra following a sex offender out of the store - and just a few hours later that morning, she was found dead. This image will stay with me for the rest of my life. So, anytime there is anything I can do above and beyond being U.S. Marshal I will do - absolutely. I am extremely proud to have been asked to sit on the NCMEC board and I am convinced that the most important thing that the U.S. Marshal Services, all law enforcement officers and the board for NCMEC can do is get the word out there and share our information so that we can prevent these abductions from occurring.
In 1983, United States President Ronald Reagan declared May 25th 'National Missing Children's Day' in commemoration of six-year old Etan Patz (pictured above) who in 1979 was abducted in Manhattan, New York. On this day law enforcement officials and advocates promoted the 'Take 25' program and spoke to about 10,000 middle class students about 'being safe' – not just about abduction but also the internet, cyberbullying and everything else associated with social media and we will continue to find ways to extend this program to the remainder of the schools.
'Take 25' is a new U.S. national grass roots child safety initiative that raises awareness to prevent child abductions by encouraging parents, guardians and educators to spend 25 minutes talking to their children about safety and abduction prevention. 'Take 25's initiative is to make child safety a national priority by providing free safety resources including safety tips and event planning guides to help communities host local events.
"Child safety measures and awareness programs that educate parents and guardians how predators are using online media to target children is very important," stated David Boatright, Executive Texas Regional Director of the NCMEC.
Veronika Bradley: Do you think that tighter border exit controls would prove effective in preventing child abductions?
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte: I don't know. I really can't answer that question. A lot of the children that are reported missing in the U.S. don't head south to the border. I think you're probably referring to the northbound traffic coming into Mexico. A lot of them hit the streets out here but there's a lot of sex trafficking occurring right here in Texas. The danger for missing children, especially if they are 12 to 15 years of age, is that the first 48 hours are critical. It is during this very vulnerable time when strangers befriend and pretend to help them, giving these children a false sense of security - and ultimately take advantage of them. Having tighter border controls is not going to make a big difference because we have enough going on right here - not just along the borders but also anywhere within the U.S.
Veronika Bradley: Integrating better and faster methods of communication would help prevent abductions.
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte: Yes, we need to share our information better and faster, and increase training for law enforcement officers. The State Troopers are trained at the Texas Department of Public Safety, so they have the knowledge to detect potential abductions when they make a traffic stop which has resulted in more than 20 arrests and the recovery of 78 missing children.
Veronika Bradley: People sometimes forget that good things are being accomplished. I think it is very important to relate to the public the proactive measures that are in place for their safety and for their children's safety.
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte: It is much better now than it was twenty years ago because of the increased media attention that child abduction has received.
Veronika Bradley: You have held the position of U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas for three years now. How's it going so far?
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte: I am truly honoured and blessed to serve in this position. I am surrounded by a lot of great people and this is not a job or a career for us but more so a mission and we are here in our respective places to serve and do the best that we can. Preventing child abductions is a collective effort - so anything good that I have done is due to the fact that I am surrounded by a lot of great people.
Veronika Bradley: Marshal Almonte thank you very much for allowing me your time to do this interview.
U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte: Thank you very much for inviting me and don't give up hope - ever. Take care and God bless.
Veronika Bradley: There's no denying that everything about Texas is big but what I will remember most is Marshal Almonte's 'big' message of hope - deep in the heart of Texas.
Recently law enforcement and other local criminal justice community members including lawyers, probation officers and child advocates attended a free training event focused on child abductions and border security. This event was hosted by Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Programs.
“The training is important because it is designed to provide participants with current data on issues relating to cross border child abductions, sex trafficking, child exploitation and victimization in the US – Mexican border region,” explained Dr. Claudia E. San Miguel, TAMIU associate professor and director, Criminal Justice Program.
Attendees also participated in an international cross border, child abduction, tabletop exercise to enhance their investigative strategies for responding to unique and challenging cases. “Ultimately, the training aims to improve communication and collaboration among agencies in the United States and between the U.S. and México,” said Dr. San Miguel.
Speakers for the event included Nelly Montelegrae, Special Prosecutor for 'Crimes of Violence against Women and Trafficking'; Jim Walters, Assistant Chief of Police for the Southern Methodist University Police Department; Sam Allen, Coordinator for the AMBER/Blue/Silver/Endangered 'Missing Persons Alert Program' and Phil Keith, the Program Administrator for the National Criminal Justice Training Center.
Many states have criminalized interstate child abduction. California was the first state to pass parental kidnapping prevention laws and Texas followed soon after. Larry Sinclair, a father whose son was abducted and taken to Russia, drafted the 'Synclair-Cannon Act'. Teresa Laudedale litigated to prevent the abduction of her children along with Cathy Brown and together they created an addendum to the 'Synclair-Cannon Act', which resulted in the creation of an abduction prevention law for Texas.
FBI States Growing Trend
The FBI states there is a very disconcerting, growing trend taking place where non-custodial parents are abducting their own children and threatening to harm them in retaliation against the other parent who has legal custody. According to the latest statistics, parental abductions have increased from 9% in 2010 to 50% in 2012. While the threat of violence and death against their own children is a reality, more often than naught children are used as pawns in motivating the custodial parent to remain in a relationship. Analysis indicates that children three years of age and younger of unwed or divorced parents are most at risk of being abducted by the non-custodial parent.
Ashli-Jade Douglas, FBI analyst for the Violent Crimes Against Children Intelligence Unit states, "In contrast to international parental abductions, our analysis indicates that domestic custodial abductions are more likely to have violent outcomes for children…and a number of factors contribute to this trend." "About 46% of American children are born to unwed parents, and 40-50% of marriages end in divorce which usually leaves one parent with custody of the child."
“The other big takeaway from our analysis,” Douglas added, “is that law enforcement must act quickly in non-custodial abductions to keep children from being harmed." "It’s mind-boggling to think that a parent would hurt their child to retaliate against the other parent but in that moment, they make themselves believe that it’s okay.”
There are misconceptions about parental abductions wherein most people consider or understand abductions to be a family matter and therefore, should not be investigated by the law enforcement. When law enforcement is informed of the abduction, the child is considered to be in danger especially in cases when the non-custodial parent has previously threatened to abduct or harm their children, are mentally disabled or are unemployed or otherwise financially unstable. "The timely reporting of the abduction by the custodial parent to law enforcement is critical," said Ashli-Jade Douglas. "That generally increases the chances of recovering the child unharmed."
The FBI suggests that custodial parents should inform schools, after-care facilities and babysitters what custody agreements are in place so that the children are not mistakenly released to non-custodial parents.
The twisted, self-absorbed mind of a spurned, angry parent who abducts his or her own child in retaliation against the other parent is beyond, and void of, any form of reasoning. Being a parent there is no assurance that you know the first thing about nurturing, loving and caring for a child. If you did, how could you do the things you do?