Monday, November 15, 2010

Congress Ignores I.R.S. Regulation Denying Information to Missing Children Investigators

The government has data that could be helpful in tracking down thousands of missing children across the country. However, existing federal tax laws prohibit the disclosure of the information.

The Internal Revenue Service says that taxpayer privacy laws severely restrict the release of information from tax returns. According to the New York Times, privacy laws enacted a generation ago to prevent Watergate-era abuses of confidential taxpayer information brought about the restrictions.

The Congress has enacted specific exceptions allowing the I.R.S. to turn over information in child support cases and to help federal agencies determine whether an applicant qualifies for income-based federal benefits. However, Congress has refused to act on missing children. Information that would be helpful in tracking down child abductors is apparently off-limits.

The I.R.S. would be of little help in finding a child abducted by strangers. Stranger abductions are exceedingly rare. The I.R.S. can be helpful in the case of family abductions. According to the Times, about 200,000 family abductions are reported each year in the United States, most of which stem from custody disputes between estranged spouses. About 12,000 last longer than six months, according to Justice Department statistics reported by the Times, and involve parental abductors who assume false identities and travel the country to escape detection.

As unlikely as it may seem, a significant number of adults responsible for family abductions file federal tax returns. The Times reported that a 2007 Treasury Department study examined the Social Security numbers of 1,700 missing children and the relatives suspected of abducting them, and found that more than a third had been used in tax returns filed after the abductions took place.

Those addresses could be used by investigators to rescue abducted children. Yet, the I.R.S. will not provide the confidential taxpayer information. A federal judge in Virginia agreed with the I.R.S. and refused to issue an order authorizing the I.R.S. to turn over the addresses to law enforcement authorities.

It is beyond comprehension that the Congress cannot carve out an exception to the tax code to enable the I.R.S. to assist law enforcement agencies locate missing and abducted children. Missing children’s advocates see the I.R.S. data as a potentially powerful resource. “There are hundreds of cases this could help solve,” Cindy Rudometkin of the Polly Klaas Foundation told the Times, “And even if it helped solve one case — imagine if that child returned home was yours.”

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