If my child is missing

Every day children are missing from their homes for any number of reasons like a toddler at play wanders away, a teenager in turmoil runs away, a child is abducted by a noncustodial parent or even by someone unknown to him or her. For decades, parents, guardians, and teachers have told children to "stay away from strangers," in an effort to keep them safe. The crisis of a missing child calls on every ounce of courage and determination that parents and other family members can muster. The search for a missing child demands a timely and coordinated response by parents and law enforcement alike.

The problem of missing children is complex and multifaceted. There are different types of missing children including family abductions, dangered runaways, nonfamily abductions and lost, injured, or otherwise missing children. The most important thing one can do to prevent abduction is to maintain healthy communication between children and parents. One should teach the child important telephone numbers and where to go in case of an emergency.

The largest number of missing children are ‘runaways’, followed by ‘family abductions’ then lost, injured, or otherwise missing children; and finally, the smallest category, but the one in which the child is at greatest risk of injury or death, ‘nonfamily abductions.’ Many times this question is asked under the assumption that family abductions are not a serious matter, however, this is not true. In most cases children are told that the left-behind parent does not want or love them. These children may live the life of a fugitive, always on the run with the noncustodial parent and stripped away from their home, friends, school, and family.

What should one do?

When the child is first missing: The first 48 hours following the disappearance of a child are the most critical in terms of finding and returning that child safely home, but they also can be the most troublesome and chaotic. One should use this checklist during those first hours to help one do everything one can to increase the chances of recovering the child - but if more than 48 hours have passed since child disappeared, one should still try to tend to these items as quickly as possible.

  1. One should immediately report the child as missing to the local law enforcement agency. The actions of parents and of law enforcement in the first 48 hours are critical to the safe recovery of a missing child, but the rawness of emotion can seriously hinder the ability of parents to make rational decisions at this crucial time.
  2. One’s initial role in the search is to provide information to and answer questions from investigators and to be at home in the event the child calls.
  3. Most of the initial searching of the area where the child is believed to have been last will be coordinated by law enforcement - depending on the circumstances of the disappearance.
  4. An important aspect of law enforcement's job is to preserve and protect any evidence gathered during the search.
  5. One should keep the name and telephone number of your law enforcement coordinator in a safe, convenient place. One should keep the lines of communication open between one and the search coordinator by asking questions, making suggestions, and airing differences of opinion.
  6. Bloodhounds are the best choice for use in a search, because they have 60 times the tracking power of German shepherds, can discriminate among scents, and can follow the child's scent in the air as well as on the ground, which means that they may be able to follow the child's scent even if he or she was carried in someone's arms or in a vehicle.
  7. Established groups, rather than individual volunteers, should be recruited for the search, because they can gather together a large cadre of people very quickly, they have an inner chain of command that makes communication and training easier, and they have an internal screening mechanism that will help ensure volunteers' soundness of character.
  8. One should consider hiring a private detective only if one is convinced that he or she can do something better than what is being done by law enforcement.
  9. Clothing, sheets, personal items, computers, and even trash may hold clues to the whereabouts of the child. One should give the law enforcement investigators all the facts and circumstances related to the disappearance of the child, including what efforts have already been made to search for the child.
  10. One should write a detailed description of the clothing worn by the child and the personal items he or she had at the time of the disappearance. Included in the description should be any personal identification marks, such as birthmarks, scars, tattoos, or mannerisms that may help in finding your child. If possible, one should find a picture of the child that shows these identification marks and give it to law enforcement.
  11. One should make a list of friends, acquaintances, and anyone else who might have information or clues about the child's whereabouts. Include telephone numbers and addresses, if possible. One should tell the investigators about anyone who moved in or out of the neighbourhood within the past year, anyone whose interest in or involvement with the family changed in recent months, and anyone who appeared to be overly interested in the child. It is necessary to find recent photographs of the child in both black and white and colour. One should make copies of these pictures for the law enforcement agency, the media etc.
  12. One person should answer all telephone calls. Keep a notebook or pad of paper by the telephone so this person can jot down names, telephone numbers, dates and times of calls, and other information relating to each call.
  13. One should work with the law enforcement agency to schedule press releases and media events and also about the use of a reward.
  14. The media can be important allies in the search for the missing child.
Mentally preparing for the long term:

One should focus on the emotional well-being. Continue individual and family counselling, and try to stay busy. One can immerse oneself in activities with other children or volunteer to help in school, or the community. One should not isolate oneself. Many parent survivors try to help other parents by working through missing children's organisations or by starting a group of their own.