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Crime prevention series

Help for children and families

Published in:
Missing children : advice, information and preventative action for parents, teachers and counsellors
Paul Wyles
Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, 1988
ISBN 0 642 13556 8 ; ISSN 1031-5330
(Crime prevention series) ; pp. 24-37


When a child goes missing

Parents and guardians can be faced with the possibility of a missing child at any time. If, for example, a child is not home from school at his/her normal time and he/she is normally punctual in such matters, there may be cause for alarm. Parents faced with such circumstances are best able to determine whether there is cause for alarm.


If there is reasonable cause for concern, the first action should be a telephone search. Such a search involves telephoning the school in question and friends of the child. If it is known that a child is a frequenter of milk bars, video arcades or other such premises on their way home, those locations might be checked.

In the event of a telephone search being unsuccessful, the physical search of a child's route to and from school might then prove useful. In such an event, someone should be home by the telephone in case the child calls in. Some sources concerned with child welfare recommend that these two steps should not take longer than 30 minutes.

If a telephone and physical search proves fruitless, parents should report the missing child to the police.

Reporting to police

Ideally, parents/guardians will maintain reasonably comprehensive information kits concerning their children. In any case, once the decision is made to call in police support, a parent should be able to provide police with:


Very often, following the disappearance of a child and the reporting of that disappearance to police, parents have no clear idea if the child is lost, abducted or has run away. If a parent is unsure whether their child has run away or been abducted they should consider the following:

Convincing authorities

Police agencies are subjected daily to persons claiming their child is either a crime victim, lost or a runaway. Such claims are often resolved within a short time by the re-appearance of the child in question. The reception of missing person inquiries and initial search action is expensive in terms of police resources and it is not unusual for under-resourced police officers to be sceptical of claims concerning missing children. Such scepticism is occasionally misplaced and valuable lead time may be lost.

Focusing on the importance of prompt police reaction to juvenile missing person reports, the very first recommendation of the US Attorney General's Advisory Board on Missing Children (1986) states: 'Reports of missing children should be investigated promptly and pursued vigorously. Law enforcement agencies should review their policies regarding the investigation of missing child reports.'

Most emphatically of all, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has clearly stated there is to be NO waiting period of any kind between the time a child is reported missing and the moment an investigation begins.

Despite the frequency with which parents are mistaken about their children being missing, they are nevertheless the best judges available and police officers - subject to proper consideration should accept parents' claims. Parents and others convinced their child, friend or whoever is missing should persist in their claim even if police disbelief should be encountered. In short, it seems the only way police can be sure not to place a missing child at risk is to assume that all first-time reports involve a high risk of foul play.

Media publicity

If sure that an abduction has occurred, parents might consider the need for media publicity. All state and territory police forces have procedures designed to facilitate media publicity for missing persons. Police will normally advise at what stage they consider publicity desirable and will require a written release from parents before taking action. However, there is nothing to stop parents acting independently in such matters should they be dissatisfied with police efforts. In some instances, parents have received excellent support by non-metropolitan media outlets contrary to police advice.

Consideration might be given to offering a reward and the production of posters and fliers. Police agencies are experienced in such matters and will advise parents. Parents should be prepared to become active in the investigation should they feel official efforts are unsatisfactory.

To avoid nuisance visitors, always ensure in any publicity that your home address is not publicised. Regrettably, there are disturbed people in all communities and one might be subjected to calls and mail which might not only mislead investigators but can also be extremely upsetting.

A decision needs to be made as to the benefits of publicity in your case. If the missing person is alive some such publicity may reach him/her and trigger a response. Police will normally check morgues and hospitals in the course of their inquiries and thus save you the trouble. It is wise to check with the officer assigned to your case as to what measures have been undertaken by police to:

At the same time be careful not to antagonise the officer. Encourage officers to keep you promptly informed of all aspects of an inquiry.

Practical considerations

It is essential parents of missing children keep their jobs. Searches can involve considerable cost and foregoing a source of income will not help meet those costs.

Desperation can force people to consider options they would never entertain in more stable times, but however desperate you become do not resort to the psychics and mystics who invariably approach parents in this situation. Such people will charge you large amounts of money but do not help you.

Be careful of private investigators who may approach you with a view to investigating your child's disappearance. There are many excellent private investigators but no ethical operative would approach you in such a matter. In any event, seek impartial advice, perhaps from the police officer(s) handling your case, before considering employing a private investigator. Their services can be very expensive.

It is wise to keep a detailed diary, showing who has done what and who has been contacted. Such a diary is best left by the telephone and any incoming information can then be entered immediately. The value of keeping a diary or log of events (or even a scrapbook) is not merely one of record; it helps refresh the memories of inquirers and, should there be a change of personnel or a review of inquiries, a diary can be of value in making clear possibly untapped avenues and establishing who was or was not present at particular times.

It may be useful to have a tape recorder placed on the telephone so that you do not miss any information that may be difficult to comprehend at the first hearing.

An answering machine will ensure you do not miss important messages when you are unavoidably away from the phone.

Crank telephone calls

Some parents of missing children have experienced crank telephone callers being generally abusive and upsetting - usually following media publicity. Telecom offers this advice:

The decision to have a new telephone number assigned to defeat the cranks may make it difficult for the absent child to contact home. Keeping the old number will make possible communication with the missing child easier but leaves one exposed to the risk of crank calls.

When a child returns

If a missing child returns home, parents should welcome the child with compassion and love. The child needs to feel part of the family he/she has been separated from. A display of anger will cause the child distress and may lead to another disappearance.

Bribes, threats and punishments

Once a runaway child has returned, especially after his/her first unauthorised departure, parents sometimes resort to unwise strategies rather than address root causes of family problems.

One such approach is to bribe a child to stay by 'giving way', buying expensive presents, and so on.

Alternatively, parents might threaten their returned child with some dire outcome, such as having them placed in a'home'should he/she run away again. The lesson learned by a threatened juvenile from this is how to threaten rather than gaining insights necessary to achieve family harmony.

Lastly, some parents punish a returning child. Sanctions may make a parent feel better in the short term but do no good for the child. Punishment might even make a child run away again.

Addressing discontent

The common factor in children running away from home is discontent with a family situation, school or relationships. Whether real or only perceived, such discontent makes disappearing the most acceptable option. Therefore, on a child's return home this discontent must be addressed. If the family is unable to do so on its own, assistance should be sought from social workers.

In cases where child abuse at home may have led to a child running away it would be inappropriate to return a child to that same situation. In abuse cases police liaise with health and welfare departments, parents and the child to negotiate the best arrangement for the child's welfare and future.

When a child does not return

The disappearance of a child can have marked psychological impacts on parents and families. Added to the initial shock and distress can be feelings of guilt, anger, hurt and despair. Often new problems present themselves daily. This section examines how to cope in typical situations that confront parents of missing children. It also presents common reactions from parents after their child's disappearance.

Initial reactions

The first thing to bear in mind is that not all missing persons who do not return home are dead. Certainly, some missing persons are no doubt dead but one cannot automatically assume death in individual cases.

One should not give up hope concerning the fate of a missing child, especially in the short to mid-term. Grief and depression are inevitable reactions to such a loss, not greatly different from reaction to a known death - although the element of 'not knowing for sure' can impose an even greater burden. At such times families need to pull together, support police tracing activities to the best extent possible and, even, if considered appropriate, undertake their own search actions. In such cases it is wise to liaise closely with the police officers assigned to your case.

Emotional support

Parents should try not to go to pieces because they are the ones most capable of helping police in their inquiries or investigation. There is no doubt that the disappearance of a child creates stressful situations and if the stress escalates it can have disastrous effects on a family; advice and practical help should be sought before it is too late.

Emotional support provided by those who have already experienced similar trauma is offered by Parents of Missing Children (POMC), telephone (03) 762 1592 on a 24-hour basis. The support service is free and available to all. POMC is of particular value in that experienced persons can provide advice directly relevant to missing person situations.

In terms of coping with emotional trauma per se, Lifeline and its associated bodies provide a useful resource. All types of emotional problems are promptly referred to qualified specialists.

Youthline is valuable to young people experiencing problems at home, or those having run away from home can obtain impartial advice and referral to services from trained counsellors.

Lifeline, Youthline and other services from which parents and children may seek advice or support are listed in the Directory of Helping Services.

Common reactions

It is common for parents of runaway children to reflect on their experience. Sometimes they blame themselves, sometimes they blame others. Christine Vincent has identified a number of common reactions of parents and briefly discusses them in Teenage Runaways: What Can a Parent Do?

Parents blame themselves. A particularly common reaction is for a parent to accept all blame for a runaway child's decision to leave home. Realistically, both parent(s) and children have contributed to the child's decision. It is important that a parent think through previous events and attempt as objectively as possible to identify contributing factors. It is often necessary to have the assistance of a trained counsellor. Realistic analysis is an important step to the subsequent 'mending of fences' between parents and children. Over-protective attitudes created by the strong desire to do the best by one's children are often hard for a parent to identify without help.

Some parents conclude they are failures as parents because their child has run away. The reality is that in the 1980s running away from home is far from uncommon behaviour and is not necessarily indicative of parental incompetence. In cases where parents lack confidence in themselves, confidence building is a necessary procedure. This can be done with the assistance of a counsellor, by reading, by attending appropriate courses and/or improving one's capacity for self analysis generally.

Where parental contribution to running away is clearly identified - such as sexual abuse, too strict discipline or arguing counselling and changes will be necessary to prevent a second runaway.

The opposite reaction to parents placing all blame upon their own shoulders is that of blaming everyone else, especially their child's peers. Blaming a child's friend for the disappearance is a common but illogical reaction which fails to address the real problem. Once again, it is important for parents to assess the causes of running away behaviour and to analyse them objectively.

Parents blame each other. The blaming of one parent by another is not an unusual reaction to a child running away. It may be objectively determined that one parent has, in fact, contributed more than the other to a child's behaviour but, even so, there is little point in assigning 'blame' in such a situation. The important thing is to accurately identify reasons, particularly as perceived by the child, so that a situation can be remedied should the missing child return. The hostile blaming of one parent by another within the very stressful circumstances of a runaway, can easily contribute to family breakdown.

Parental relief and guilt. The departure of a child from a stressful family life can result in a sense of relief on the part of the parent(s). A day or two without conflict can be extremely welcome. After that, a parent can start feeling guilty at their sense of relief. Such a reaction is normal and should not be seen as evidence of poor parenting.


Not infrequently the level of grief involved in missing children cases is similar to that experienced as a result of death. Situations in which parents are left not knowing whether their child is alive or dead are especially traumatic. Counselling should be sought as the strain damages marriages as well as individual functioning. Some parents find the anxiety of not knowing whether their child is alive or dead quite debilitating and prefer to assume their child is dead. Such a decision may be preferable to eternal optimism. No fixed advice can be offered as grieving parents, relatives and friends need to make their own decisions in such matters, based on their own needs.

Often when there is no proof a missing child is alive or dead, there can be no finality, no resolution in the grieving process. Many parents of missing children are familiar with this 'unresolved grief' with mood swings between grief and hope: one moment mourning the loss of their child, the next hoping desperately their child will be found alive, safe and well. Unresolved grief affects family members' relationships with each other and often tensions are high. It should be emphasised that individuals react very differently in situations involving enormous emotional stress and most reactions are means of coping with the situation.

Stages in the grief process usually begin with denial and move to feelings of anger, helplessness, guilt, depression and finally to resolution or relief. In her book On Death and Dying, Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross stresses that there is no real order to these feelings and that individuals experience grief in very different ways. Parents of missing children can relate to this. Some parents begin by denying something terrible had happened to their child, but as the hours and days pass they moved towards acceptance of the situation. Often anger emerges and may be directed at the child, family, friends, journalists, police and even God. Inevitably, at some stage, parents are angry with themselves.

This self-anger often gives way to guilt. Commonly, 'if only' is the means of expressing guilt; 'If only I had been there ... if only I wasn't angry that time ... if only I had bought her that present ... ' Although guilt is a stage through which many people pass in the grieving process, some are unable to move beyond it. This can be detrimental to the individual's health, to family, friendships and job. It is normal to feel some guilt but if this increases and continues for a long period it can be extremely damaging to the individual.

Other common feelings parents describe in grieving for a missing child are: loneliness, even when surrounded by people; becoming numb, blocking out feelings and becoming numb; fear of what may happen and fear of being unable to carry on; and helplessness, wanting to do something to find the child but somehow being immobilised.

In an article written for Compassionate Friends, an Organisation for bereaved parents, Lea Beaven describes vividly the fear many parents experience at the loss of their child:

We live in constant fear. Fear that we will not be able to cope with this trauma. We fear waking up in the morning because we must again face the unbearable truth. We fear contact with friends or workmates who cannot understand our grief or our need to talk. We fear going through the motions of everyday life, shopping, cooking, travelling by bus. How will we make it through the day? ... We fear the long days, the empty space at our table, the need to 'Carry On' ... But most of all we fear going to sleep, for when we finally do, we will only have to wake again to face another fearful day.

In time, such fear usually leads to some acceptance of the new situation families find themselves in. It takes time to adjust and for many families, although they reach some peaceful acceptance, doubt still remains as to whether the child is gone for ever. Some families complete their acceptance by holding a memorial service or other significant ceremony. Others, find that they would be unable to cope with such an act and may prefer to hold a small commemorative family dinner and discussion. Still others may cling to hope as their only means of coping and prefer to do nothing.

Some parents describe reaching a level of emotional acceptance or adjustment after their child disappeared only to be stirred up again by reported sightings, rumours, media reports, family and friends reactions and the attitudes of people who attach stigma to families of missing children (especially where that child is viewed as a runaway). Parents of missing children often re-live their child's disappearance with every media report or every sighting. One mother recalled the pain of even going shopping because she would see girls who looked like her daughter who had disappeared four years previously and this would evoke in her many emotional memories and much distress.

Other parents recall being unable to come to terms with their grief when presented with the skeletal remains of their missing son or daughter. Somehow bones do not do justice to memories or allow parents to grieve for children who have disappeared without a trace, without the opportunity to say good-bye.

Coming to terms with grief can be a real problem for the family and friends of a missing person. Social workers and counsellors skilled in grief counselling can offer help. It is important to understand that grief is a process that everyone experiences at one time or another. Feelings of anger, guilt and pain should be expressed and discussed. By identifying expressed feelings the loss can be actualised and hopefully some resolution or acceptance can be achieved. Everyone experiences grief differently and ultimately each person must deal with their feelings on their own terms in their own time. For the loved ones of missing persons the mourning is made more painful by the uncertainty of the situation.