There are many reasons children and youth may be reported missing. Children may wander away or hide; they may be abducted by parent in a custody battle; they may run away. Stereotypical abductions by strangers are by far the rarest case scenario in missing children cases.
When a child goes missing, parents and caregivers may react emotionally in many different ways. Few parents know exactly what to do when their children go missing, but here are some basic steps to follow, for any kind of missing child case.
1. Call the Police/911
The police have access to many different kinds of resources to search for missing people. Furthermore, many other agencies, like JWRC, cannot assist families until law enforcement has been contacted.
- File a missing person's report with the police. Ask the police to file the child's information in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a database of crime information, including missing persons.
2. Contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
This agency has the ability to create missing persons' posters and distribute them nation-wide via email and fax, among other resources.
- A NCMEC specialist will ask you a series of questions, regarding the child's physical description, circumstances of the disappearance and your contact information, among other things. The screener will then forward the information on to a case manager, who will call you back.
- NCMEC handles cases of children age 18 and under. They may be able to assist in some cases of young adults, if requested by law enforcement.
3. Find photos of your child
Good photos are one of the most important and useful tools in missing persons investigations.
- Make several color copies of each photo, and store the originals in a safe place. You can make copies at most retailers with photo printing services.
- Scan the photos to your computer and save as electronic files. You can often get electronic copies burned to a CD or saved on a flash drive when you're making copies at photo printing services.
- Give physical copies or email electronic copies of the photos to law enforcement and your case manager at NCMEC.
- The best, most useful photos are color, up-close shots of the head and shoulders, including the hair and teeth. School pictures are okay, but candid photos often give a more realistic image of the child in everyday life.
4. Close off the child's bedroom
The room could contain evidence important to the investigation.
- Do not wash bedding or clothing, and do not clean the room until law enforcement lets you know it's okay to do so.
- Do not delete anything off of the child's computer or Internet accounts, and do not try to investigate the computer yourself; the police are trained to do this.
- If asked for the child's toothbrush or hair brush/comb by the police, transport these items in a paper bag, not plastic! Plastic bags can destroy biological evidence.
5. Write everything down
This is an intense situation requiring conversations with many different people, and it may be easy to forget who you've spoken to about what. In addition, the police may be able to use this log as evidence in the investigation.
- Record the names, phone numbers, agencies and titles of people you talk to about the case, including the date and details of the conversation.
- If people volunteer to help in the search, record their names, addresses, phone numbers and license plate numbers, even if you know them. Note what they did to help, and when. Read more about working with volunteers.
6. Ask for help
It's very important to take care of yourself. Having a missing child can be very emotionally, physically and spiritually draining, and it's important to maintain good levels of energy and health.
- Seek assistance and support from non-profit support organizations, such as JWRC. Staff are available via helpline 24 hours a day at (800) 325-HOPE (4673). We can assist you with emotional support, and direct you to helpful resources and literature, such as NCMEC's family survival guide.
- Team Hope can be a great support resource. It is a network of parents and caregivers who have experienced having a missing child, and have agreed with others in the same situation to offer support.
- Reach out to community resources, such as block clubs, PTAs or faith organizations. Ask close friends and family for help with household duties such as cooking and cleaning.
- Seek out mental health resources for yourself, as well as your other children and family members. Talking to a professional can help ease the burden of the extremely difficult feelings that naturally come with having missing loved ones.
- Gather newspapers or news stories from the Internet regarding events going on in your neighborhood on the day before, the day of, and the day after the child's disappearance. These may provide some clues about the context of the disappearance.
- Ask a close friend or non-immediate family member to act as the spokesperson for calls from the media. If your child's story gets press coverage, the inundation of reporters asking questions can be overwhelming to a parent or caregiver close to the story, at a time when you're already pushed to your emotional limits. In addition, hold media and press conferences at a place away from your home, such as a school, church or police station. Read more about working with the media.
- According to Suzanne's Law, police are required to accept reports of missing children up to age 21, enter them into NCIC, and begin investigating immediately. In Minnesota, police are required to accept all missing persons reports, without delay.
- Facebook can be very useful in missing persons cases. With law enforcement's permission, consider making a Facebook page about the missing person, or just making a post on your own wall and asking friends to "share" the post on their walls. If you need help with Facebook, ask a knowledgeable friend.
1. Call the Police/911
- File a missing person's report.
- After a few hours, contact the following agencies to ensure the youth's information was received:
2. Collect photos of the youth
- Find up-close, candid, color photos of the youth's face and shoulders. If these aren't available, find something close. School photos will work.
- Make 20 color copies of the photos, and keep the originals in a safe place.
- Keep electronic copies of the photos on your computer so you can easily email them.
- Give copies of the photos to the police and anyone helping with poster production.
3. Contact the National Runaway Safeline
- Call (800) 621-4000 You can leave a message for the youth, and they can leave a message for you as well.
- If the youth decides they want to come home, this service can assist with free bus tickets home.
4. Talk to the youth's friends
- Friends may know about the youth's intention to run, and may have information.
- Assure friends that the youth is not in trouble, that you are only worried for his/her safety and want them to come home.
5. Write everything down
- Use a notebook to record all incoming and outgoing calls, mail, messages, etc., about the youth. Get Caller ID if you don't already have it. Make lists of family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors and acquaintances who may have information. Contact these people and express your desire to find the youth. Share this list with police. If the youth has access to bank or credit card accounts, check with the bank or credit card companies to see if there have been any recent withdrawals or transactions. Pay close attention to gas station transactions. Do not cancel or close these accounts! This may take away the youth's survival resources and limit your ability to track their movement.
- Get an answering machine or voicemail to ensure the youth has a way of contacting you if you are not home. Consider recording an outgoing message directly addressing the missing person and asking them to come home.
- If the youth uses a cell phone, check the call history on the billing statement for numbers frequently called. This might provide clues as to people who might have information about the youth's intentions.
- Create missing posters. NCMEC and/or JWRC can help with creating posters of the missing person for you to distribute. If you decide to make your own, do not list your home phone number on the posters. The number of calls you receive may overwhelm you when you're already emotional. Let the police sort through the calls.
- Assign a family spokesperson to deal with media and other calls to your home, so that all information comes and goes through one central person. JWRC can act in this role.
- Think honestly about the reasons the youth may have run away. Be prepared to make changes when the youth returns home. Consider family counseling and other help with reunification. JWRC can provide resources for this.
- Take care of yourself. Remember to eat, rest and exercise. Seek out counseling and therapy to help process your emotions. Ask others to help with daily chores and duties. Reach out to organizations you belong to for support, such as faith communities, clubs and community groups.