When Children Go Missing

This article highlights the systematic and intensive efforts of governments and agencies to locate and return missing children.

When children go missing, media is rightly swift to describe local efforts to find them. Not so publicized are the government and private sector agencies that kick into action when children go missing. Many of these agencies are busy even before children are reported missing, taking proactive measures aimed at prevention and early intervention.

The systematic intensive work of locating missing children and returning them to their lawful parents or guardians began about fifteen years ago in the United States and Canada.

In the United States the lead agency is the non-profit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Far more than a clearing house of information to be disseminated to other agencies, the NCMEC is also involved in providing training and technical assistance to law enforcement agencies. In addition, the NCMEC provides resource materials for child identification and street proofing programs for use by schools and local community organizations.

The NCMEC is most well-known as the "milk-carton people". Their missing children photo program has expanded far beyond the success of their milk carton campaign. Weekly, 80 Million American households receive their "Have You Seen Me?" flyers. Some time ago, Wal-Mart came on board as a corporate partner and as a result its 3000 stores now post missing children's photos on their bulletin boards, weekly reaching as many as 120 Million people.

The NCMEC has also been instrumental in enlisting support from more than 340 other corporate partners in their work, together with the federal government offices, all of the latter now posting missing children photographs on their building bulletin boards. The Internal Revenue Service has gone a step further by distributing missing children's photos with all tax forms and department publications. Overall, the NCMEC reports more than 600 million images are annually distributed. As a direct result, their 1999 Annual Report states, "one in every six children featured is recovered."

As an information clearing house the NCMEC databases are extensive. Among several that they utilize are the National Crime Information Centre, National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, Infotek, Autotrak, Information America, and Lexus/Nexus. As well, they operate a CyberTipline, from which they gather, process, and disseminate data for law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Like their counterparts in other countries, they are able to communicate with literally thousands of agencies within hours of a report. In 1999 the NCMEC assisted in more than 68,000 missing child cases, 1600 of which were international abduction cases.

Missing children are usually divided into eight categories: stranger abduction, accident, wandered off, parental abduction (custody and no-custody order), runaway, unknown, and other.

Nearly 80% of these are runaways between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. Of these, most have a prior history of running away, and more than half are females. Less than 10% of missing children are abducted and the majority of these are parental abductions. Disturbing, however, is that more than 15% of children reported missing are listed by unknown circumstance.

Over the past fifteen years many measures have been developed to assist in locating missing children, most revolutionary of which is, perhaps, computerized age progression. In the United States this relatively new technology has already assisted in closing 220 cases. In Canada the service is offered to law enforcement agencies nation-wide. The most useful progressions are for children who have been missing two years or more. Taking photographs of the missing child from as close as possible to the time of disappearance and photographs of biological parents and/or siblings at the same age and at the age to which the child is being aged, forensic artists are able to construct a computer image of an "aged" missing child with remarkable accuracy.

Because missing children are a major concern for most, interagency cooperation, even internationally, is considerable. One recent case serves to describe this:

A two-year old was taken by her mother from her home in Hawaii in late 1998 to visit relatives in Texas. They failed to return.

In May, 1999, the mother phoned the father from Australia to report she had no intention of returning. The father filed a temporary custody order and notified the NCMEC. Because the mother had relatives in Canada, the father also notified the Missing Children Society of Canada in October, 1999. Their immediate investigation revealed that the mother and daughter had, indeed, visited their Canadian relatives. Canada's national Missing Children Registry was notified and border alerts were issued.

In February, 2000, Canada Customs reported that mother and daughter had entered the country. Investigation by the Society confirmed a location. The father was informed and he flew to Canada where he registered his custody order. Immediately, local police placed the child in the care of a children's agency and within four days of the mother and daughter entering Canada, she was re-united with her father. No less than seven different local and national agencies and government departments played a role in successful closure of the case.

The currency of the missing children databases and access to them, while very useful, still rely on front line law enforcement officers, community workers, and the general public to be effective. Training, awareness and vigilance are keys to success. Behavioral anomalies, discrepancies in documents, and watch lists are all indicators for investigators and observers. If these are ignored, a child found may still remain missing.

As important as locating missing children is ensuring their return. With the support of corporate partners, notably airlines and railways, this is made possible even for families without the money to pay transportation costs. Arrangements are possible to transport children home, as well as to enable parents or guardians to pick them up from often faraway places.

That efforts to locate and return missing children will continue and increase is evidenced by NCMEC activity, which now experiences three million "hits" daily in Internet traffic. The "milk-carton people" have indeed expanded their horizons.

© High Speed Ventures 2011