Rewards and Missing Persons
It’s hard to assess the true value of a reward in recovering a missing child. The offer of a reward might renew media interest in reporting on a missing child, or it might be the thing that motivates a person living on the fringe of society to call in a lead. Although rewards do not always produce the right leads or have the anticipated results, the use of a reward may be worth considering. This chapter discusses some important issues for you to think about before setting up a reward. It explains how to manage reward or donation funds correctly and where to go for help or advice.
Regardless of the odds that a reward will work, most parents will want to offer one if they possibly can in an effort to turn over every stone in the search to find their missing child. However, many issues need to be considered before an informed decision about a reward can be made.
Get expert help. Because of the number of legal and technical issues that can arise from a reward offer, you need expert advice from a knowledgeable attorney, your primary law enforcement contact, your banker, and the parents of other missing children who have successfully established a reward fund. Make sure that the people who give you advice have firsthand experience managing a reward fund.
Be aware that your reward offer can become a legally enforceable contract. If you offer a reward, you are agreeing to pay a sum of money if a person’s actions lead to the requested result. That means that anyone who complies with the terms of the offer can be legally entitled to claim the reward and can sue for its recovery. That’s why you must be very careful in how you describe the terms of the reward offer. Sloppy language can result in serious legal problems. Ask an attorney for pro bono legal assistance.
Be prepared to meet resistance from law enforcement. Some law enforcement agencies disapprove of reward offers because they can result in a torrent of false leads. Keep law enforcement informed of any decision you make regarding a reward, and if you sense concern or resistance, point out that all it takes is one solid lead to recover your child. Also, the desire for reward money could motivate an abductor to keep a child alive.
Clearly state the purpose of the offer. First decide what you want the reward to accomplish, then make sure that this purpose is clearly spelled out in the offer. For example, it is a good idea to make your child’s safe return a written condition of the reward. The better the description of the reward’s purpose, the less likely it is that you will have to argue later over whether someone complied with the terms of the offer.
Set a time limit for the reward. One of the goals of a reward is to generate immediate results in order to get your child back quickly. In the beginning, you may want to keep the time limit fairly short and tie it to a significant event, such as your child’s birthday. The drama of such a countdown could generate substantial public interest. Avoid open-ended rewards that can result in liability many years later. You can always renew the reward for a longer period of time.
Be careful in establishing the amount of the reward. Don’t offer more money than you can afford to pay. Decide on the maximum amount of the reward in the first offer and stick to it, because if you raise the amount later, people may wait for a more lucrative offer before calling in a lead.
Check to see if special reward funds already exist. Sometimes State and local agencies — and even the FBI — have funds available to put up as a reward in cases involving predatory abduction. Ask your law enforcement contact to help you find out about such funds.
Be aware that monetary pledges are not as reliable as donations. It is much easier to persuade people to pledge money toward a reward than it is to get them to donate cash. Therefore, you can in theory raise much more money through pledges than you can through donations. The problem is that you cannot be sure that a pledge will be honored when the time comes to pay out the reward. If you use pledges, get the pledge in writing, pay attention to the expiration date of the pledge, and plan to spend a fair amount of time making sure your pledges are still legitimate. Pledges are not forever.
Do not use your personal funds to finance the reward. As hard as it may be, refrain from using your own personal funds for the reward. Based on the terms and conditions spelled out in the reward offer, you may be liable for payment of the reward, and you may even be sued. And though you may not realize it in the beginning, you may be faced with financial constraints months or years later, for example, if you are out of work for an extended period of time helping in the search for your child.
Monetary donations can be extremely helpful to families whose lives have been turned upside down by the disappearance of a child. They can be used to help finance the search, fund a reward, or support the family if a parent is unable to work during the search process. But donations can also present problems if they are not managed properly. For this reason, you need to be aware of some important accounting and accountability issues that, if not handled correctly, could result in legal and financial ruin.
Make sure that both you and your contributors know how the money will be used. Donations can be used for many different purposes, depending upon your need. Ask that donations be earmarked for a specific purpose — such as the reward fund, the search fund, or the family support fund — and if they are not, ask one of your volunteers to call the donor to find out to which fund the donation should be given. Seek professional help from both a lawyer and a banker to help you establish separate trusts and accounts and to oversee disbursements.
Keep separate bank accounts for each fund. If accounts are set up properly, donors will feel comfortable that records of the money are being kept and that donations are being used for the specified purpose. Creating a trust fund — or at least establishing safeguards, such as requiring dual signatures on checks and maintaining accurate records — is crucial. You must make sure that funds earmarked for a specific purpose are, in fact, being used for that purpose.
Avoid having direct control over any funds received. Parents should not solicit funds on their own. Use volunteer groups for this purpose instead. Parents also should not have any signatory control over the funds, because there have been instances in which someone attempted to extort the reward money from parents by force. Protect yourself from this kind of danger by putting the money, and the power to access it, in someone else’s hands.
Designate trusted individuals outside the family to have signature authority over the accounts. By removing yourself from the control of the funds, you eliminate any unnecessary scrutiny by members of the public or the media about the use of the funds. Make sure that the individuals selected for this task are trustworthy and that they understand their role and potential liability.
Maintain accurate records that show where the donations came from and how the money was spent. Make sure that the individuals with signature authority maintain proper records on all income and expenditures. A list of donors should be maintained so thank-you letters can be sent, and copies of receipts for all expenditures should be kept in case questions arise. Ask a banker to help you establish proper accounting procedures, or ask for pro bono help from an attorney or an accountant.
Be honest with the public. Be prepared for questions, which may turn into accusations, concerning the use of donated funds. Designate one person — who could be you or a trusted friend or family member — to answer all questions concerning how the funds are being spent. Information concerning the number of donations or the amount in the accounts should never be released to the media.
Specify what will happen to the reward in the event your child is located before the money is spent. Sometimes large sums of money in a reward fund are left unspent. Therefore, you need to establish written procedures for how the money is to be dispensed if it cannot be used for the reward. For example, you can specify that all donations over a certain amount are to be returned, if the donor is traceable, or that unused funds are to be donated to an organization or agency that helped with the search. Excess reward fund money should never be used for the family’s personal expenses, because that was not the purpose of the fund. Again, talk with an attorney to determine how to handle this situation.