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What to do when a child disappears

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In the United States alone, more than 800,000 children under the age of 18 go missing each year.* That’s more than 2,000 per day, or an average of 83 every hour. When a child disappears, time is critical. From reporting a child missing to distributing photos and fliers, it is imperative that immediate steps be taken to report a child’s disappearance to law enforcement officials and the appropriate agencies.

When a child disappears, loved ones are often overwhelmed, not knowing where to turn or how to begin the reporting process. Below, you will find a step-by-step guide on how to report a child missing; and what steps you can take to be prepared if and when your child disappears.

  • Once you have determined your child can not be located, call the authorities.You may dial 911 or call your local police department’s emergency number. Tell them your child has disappeared, and request immediate police assistance. If you are in a public setting and are separated from your child, find the nearest security guard or event worker for immediate assistance.
  • Be prepared to provide a physical description, and give police your child’s ID kit. Note what your child was last wearing, and include shoes, jewelry, and/or accessories. Regularly measure your child’s weight and height, and note any changing hair color(s). Readily identify any scars, marks, or tattoos, and any distinguishing characteristics or physical features. If your child has access to a cell phone, make sure to give that number to the authorities. Always keep a recent photo of your child in a wallet or purse or on your cell phone, readily accessible in case of an emergency. Child identification (ID) kits are extremely helpful in aiding police in your child’s disappearance, providing copies of fingerprints, DNA samples and hair samples. You will find more information on how to obtain a Child ID kit at the end of this article.
  • Ask your detective or law enforcement contact to enter your child into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) as soon as possible, and to provide you with the MP# (missing persons' number) when the report is entered. NamUS is a nationwide database providing law enforcement agencies across the country with access to your child’s case information, photo/flyer, and contact information for your local police department. The system also stores dental, fingerprint, and DNA information.
  • Call NCMEC. Once you have filed a missing persons’ report with police, note the case file number, and have that available when calling The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Their call center is open 24 hours’ per day, 365 days per year, with call center agents ready to assist. The number for reporting a child missing (or to report seeing a missing child) is 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).
  • Give all details regarding your child’s disappearance to the call center, and ask that your child be registered in the NCMEC system immediately. A case worker will be assigned to you, and he or she will assist you through the process. In an effort to protect both you and your child, NCMEC may request information via fax or e-mail; so be prepared to provide that, if necessary.
  • Print/save your child’s flyer and start a file. Once your child’s information is entered into NamUS and NCMEC, a downloadable and printable poster will be available from their websites. If you have access to a printer, make a hard copy of the poster for your records; then, save a copy of the flyer onto your computer, for easier online distribution. (Fliers may be saved by right-clicking “save image as”, and downloading to your hard drive). Start a notebook, file folder, binder or e-folder where you can store all your notes and information, so it will be easily accessible when you need it.
  • Find a missing persons’ advocate. Begin looking for a local missing persons’ agency, group/team, or search and rescue (SAR) organization. When a child goes missing, parents and loved ones often need support, and someone to answer questions regarding how to proceed. Agencies, groups, and SAR organizations have individuals trained to assist with your next steps, and how to organize search efforts in your community. These groups assist with localized flyer distributions search groups, prayer vigils and management of social media accounts for leads and tips. In many cases, they work hand-in-hand with law enforcement to better aid the families, acting as a liaison between the two. It is best to find a group that does not charge for its services, as most of the reputable organizations and teams offer their assistance for free. Examples of missing persons’ advocates/teams include Moms on a Mission and LostNMissing.
  • Turn to your family and friends. Social media is one of the fastest-growing — and successful — ways to locate a missing child/teen. From organizations such as Truckers Against Trafficking to Seeking the Lost and Victims News Online, social media plays a key role in today’s distribution of missing persons’ fliers. In a 2012 television interview, Marc Klaas of the KlaasKIDS Foundation told talk show host Ricki Lake that “Facebook has become the milk carton of the 21st Century.” Utilizing social media efforts like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and others generates a quick response to a parents’ request for assistance, from all parts of the globe.
  • Reach out to the media. Local media outlets such as newspapers, television stations and radio stations often cover missing childrens’ cases in their communities. In many cases, reporters will ask for police contact information in order to verify the disappearance. Readily provide the information, as trained reporters will know the importance of protecting both your safety — and privacy — and that of your missing child. Remember to give the reporter your written and/or verbal authorization to utilize your child’s name and photo in their coverage. Provide as many details as you can without divulging anything the authorities may ask you to keep quiet; your advocate or agency representative will be able to assist you with how to position your situation with the media.
  • Take care of yourself and get some rest. When your child is missing, it is often difficult to turn off your mind or think about sleeping, eating, and performing daily routines. However, it is imperative that parents of a missing child remain strong, focused, and have the energy to provide critical information when a child disappears. Therefore, it is necessary for parents to eat, sleep, and try to function as normal as possible, while working hand-in-hand with law enforcement and advocates to locate a missing child. In cases where siblings of the missing child are present in the home, parents need to keep their energy up to assist the other children in managing a sibling’s disappearance. Seek the support of friends, family, church or religious leader, and professional counsel if and when necessary. Many communities have counselors or support groups for families to lean on, and may be found via localized searches on the Internet.

If your child goes missing, remember to remain as calm as possible, and work with law enforcement to provide details as quickly and effectively as possible. To order a Child ID kit, you may do so by visiting KlaasKidsFoundation, ChildSafeKit.com, or the National Child Identification Program.

*Source: Statistics provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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