A year ago today, the body of Jorelys Rivera was found in a dumpster at her River Ridge apartment complex after three days prior.
The handling of the case by the Canton Police Department was seen as an organizational failure, starting with the lax attitude of the department from the top down in their efforts to find the girl.
"[I]t reflects poorly on the department that neither the Chief nor the assistant chief were immediately informed and that neither of them was on the scene post haste," wrote Councilman Bob Rush to Mayor Gene Hobgood and City Manager Scott Wood in a January e-mail. "The assumption that this was only a runaway was initially valid but no one at the top was there to make assessments."
In light of this attitude and a report complied by LaGrange Public Safety Chief Louis Dekmar, Canton's Chief of Police Jeff Lance resigned in January.
Lance's replacement, Robert Merchant, has seen his department transformed since his arrival, reviewing total policy and attitude changes that have turned missing child cases into a top priority for the department.
Merchant said that the new missing person checklists that every officer and detective involved with a case have to complete are "very structured," and have helped contributed to the change of mindset in the department in regards to missing persons cases.
"When we get dispatched to a missing child call, there's a sene of urgency," Merchant said. "In one case, we even set up the mobile command vehicle."
Dekmar's report criticised the department for failing to call in CART-Georgia's Child Abduction Response Team-until two days after Rivera was declared missing. Merchant says that in all future abduction cases, the department will not hesitate to, "use every resource available to find missing children."
All the resources in the world won't help recover missing children if the police mindset is indifferent. Merchant has overseen a culture change in the department that has included new uniforms, new equipment and a new urgency to handle missing persons cases.
"If you don't treat something seriously when something serious happens and you don't respond well it reflects poorly on your organization," Merchant said.
The systemic changes at the department seem to be paying dividends; Merchant and many of his officers feel they have "turned a corner," citing improved relations with Canton residents and business owners.
Merchant and some of his officers attended the recent Light for Jorelys vigil, which allowed them all to reflect on the changes in their department and their lives since the little girl went missing.
Merchant told Josilenne Rivera, Jorelys' mother, after the vigil that he thought the Canton Police Department would be a better organization going forward, and that the department would take missing child cases with the utmost degree of seriousness.
"I'm only as good as the people around me," Merchant said. "There are some very good officers working in this agency."