Sign In / Sign Out
Navigation for Entire University
- ASU Home
- My ASU
- Colleges and Schools
- Map and Locations
Police efforts to locate and return missing persons is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to the reasons people go missing. This guide is limited to addressing the particular issues associated with missing persons. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:
Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.
Using the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) to determine the extent of the missing-person problem and the different types of missing-person categories can present a national snapshot of the missing-person problem, but you will need to assess the extent of your local problem and the relative proportion of different categories to allocate resources appropriately.‡
† Unless otherwise noted, the data presented are for the United States.
‡ NCIC, because it is only one of the national sources of missing-person data, should be used cautiously to draw research conclusions, as it does not meet the requirements of a statistical/scientific database; rather, NCIC is an operational database. Data are entered by thousands of different people with varying levels of understanding about missing-person categories and definitions. Changes in certain categories over time may reflect greater understanding of appropriate assignment rather than real change in a category. For example, declines in the overall category of "juvenile" in NCIC may reflect a better assignment of cases of missing persons under age 18 to other more appropriate categories of "endangered," "involuntary," or "disabled" missing persons.
For purposes of this guide, a missing person is defined as someone—either a child or an adult—who is missing, voluntarily or involuntarily.§ NCIC reported over 700,000 missing-person cases in 2009, with approximately 13 percent of those cases still active at the end of that year.1
§ Different entities, such as the NCIC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), use various terms to identify the different subtypes of missing persons.
¶ Since NCIC cases must be entered by police within 2 hours of reporting them, it is likely that police eventually know much more about the circumstances of the disappearance at a later time when the case has been cleared with a successful return.
Some people are missing voluntarily and others involuntarily. Each of these categories includes several subtypes of missing persons with potentially different investigative strategies for police. NCIC categorizes the missing as "juvenile," "endangered," "disabled," "other," "involuntary," and "catastrophe." Some of these categories describe characteristics of missing persons, others describe their temporary condition, and others describe their willingness to be missing.† The most likely entry is juvenile (77 percent), followed by endangered (12 percent), disabled and other (4 percent of each), involuntary (3 percent), and catastrophe (less than 1 percent).3 However, natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and floods could add significant numbers to the catastrophe category in affected jurisdictions.
† The NCIC categorization scheme may not be of significant operational value for police; accordingly, police agencies are encouraged to develop their own categorization schemes that best reflect the nature of their missing-person cases.
National, as well as local, counts of missing persons for any given year are constantly changing as cases are listed by the date they occurred (i.e., when the persons went missing or were last seen) and not by the date the cases were entered in the record system.Thus, persons who actually went missing in one year may not be reported as missing until years later.Because of the categorization scheme, the overlap among some categories—and the large gap in knowledge about the circumstances of many missing persons—the scope and nature of the missing-person problem is unclear. Your jurisdiction might have numbers of certain types of missing persons that differ from the national picture.
One Australian study found that 34 percent of missing persons had gone missing previously.4 Another study found that 35 percent of missing persons accounted for 73 percent of all missing-person cases and that most of these cases were repeat runaways.5 As many as 4 percent of missing children experienced multiple missing episodes during the course of a year, the most likely combination being a runaway episode and an episode of whereabouts unknown to caregivers (but otherwise safe).6 Cases of repeat runaways use a huge amount of police resources and may result in less attention being paid to the repeated disappearance of the same individual.7 Repeat runaway cases may indicate family dysfunction, and social services intervention may reduce future missing person cases.
The harms that missing persons experience or that their missing status causes to others vary. At one end of the harm spectrum, some missing persons are murdered, raped, or otherwise assaulted. At the other end of the spectrum, some missing persons experience little or no harm: they were never in danger but only unaccounted for, or they wished to go missing to escape worse consequences. In the middle of the spectrum, some missing persons are injured or become ill because they did not have support or protection during the time they were missing. Others experience psychological trauma because they have been abducted, held captive, or experienced fear and anxiety from not knowing whether they would be found and rescued. People who care for missing persons—whether family, friends, guardians, caregivers, or coworkers—experience anxiety and stress from not knowing whether the missing person is safe. Finally, all citizens experience some, although difficult-to-quantify, elevated risk to their safety when public safety resources are consumed by searching for missing persons who are not, in fact, in any danger. A single missing-persons search can consume hundreds of hours by police, fire and emergency, helicopter, dive team, and canine-unit personnel.
Missing-person cases are not conventional criminal investigations, and most do not involve a crime. But what originally seems a mere routine missing-person case sometimes entails a far more serious matter; so the ability to prioritize potentially high-risk cases is essential. Because missing-person cases can consume a significant amount of police resources, agencies can reap significant rewards by preventing missing-persons cases or responding in a more efficient manner.
The missing-person case least likely to be viewed as unusual or suspicious—the case of the missing adult prostitute with a warrant—may in fact be the case at the highest risk for foul play. Or what may appear to be a typical missing-child case may in fact have the police responding to a crime in progress—an abduction, a kidnapping, a molestation, a rape, or a murder. While the missing elderly person or autistic child may not be at significant risk for foul play, there may be significant risks for accidental deaths, including exposure deaths and drowning. Assessing risk, while difficult, is a critical component of missing-person investigations, and cases should not be assumed to be of low priority until the initial investigation can be conducted.
Cases involving child abduction that may present a danger to the child are eligible for the "Child Abduction" (CA) flag when entered into NCIC as involuntarily missing or endangered missing.8
Risk Factors for Missing Children
- The missing child is 13 years old or younger.
- The missing child is believed to be out of the zone of safety for his or her age and developmental stage.
- The missing child is mentally incapacitated.
- The missing child is drug dependent, having prescribed medication and/or illegal substances, and the dependency is potentially life threatening.
- The missing child has been absent from home for more than 24 hours before being reported to law enforcement.
- On the basis of available information, it is determined the missing child is in a life-threatening situation.
- On the basis of available information it is believed the missing child is in the company of an individual who could endanger his or her welfare.
- The absence is inconsistent with his or her established patterns of behavior, and deviation cannot be readily explained.
- Other circumstances are involved in the disappearance, causing a reasonable person to conclude the child should be considered "at-risk."
Source: NCMEC (2006, 38).
In some missing-person cases, there will be obvious signs of foul play, such as evidence of a struggle or of a home or a car in disarray. But in cases originally suspected to be benign, additional information may suggest the missing person is at high risk. Family abduction cases also have varying levels of risk. Cases where a child is taken out of state, a family history of abuse, danger of sexual exploitation, and children with special medical needs may increase the risk in family child-abduction cases.9 Thus, the risk or urgency in a particular case can change over time as you gather information.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Established in 1984, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is a nonprofit, private organization which serves as a clearinghouse for information on missing and exploited children. NCMEC provides technical assistance and training to law enforcement and social-service professionals, distributes descriptions and photographs of missing children, and networks with other nonprofits and state clearinghouses for missing children.
Broadly, a "missing child refers to any youth under the age of 18 whose whereabouts are unknown to his or her legal guardian."10 The total annual number of missing children—both reported and unreported—is estimated to be around 1.3 million.11 Of these missing children, nearly all were returned home alive or were located; only a fraction of one percent were not. Of those relatively few children who were still missing, the majority were runaways from institutional care.12 The most common categories of missing children, from most frequent to least frequent, are as follows: "juvenile runaways," "family abductions," "lost and/or injured children," and "nonfamily abductions."13
Juveniles account for approximately half of active missing-persons cases.14 Three-quarters of missing children are ages 12–17. Male and female children have a nearly equal likelihood of going missing. Of missing children about 55 percent are White, 20 percent are Black, and 20 percent are Hispanic.15
In child abduction murders there is a nearly equal likelihood that the perpetrator is a stranger or friend/acquaintance, and typical victims are 11 years of age. The typical offender is 27 years of age, unmarried, as likely to be unemployed as employed, and their initial contact with the victim occurred within three blocks of the victim's residence and, in many cases, within a half-block. In only about half of these cases were the victims reported as missing and in many cases, there was at least a 2-hour delay in reporting them to police.16
Most missing children (84 percent) are runaways or are missing for benign explanations. The most common categories of missing children are not necessarily those in which the child is at greatest risk. The least common missing-child case is the most dangerous—stranger abductions. However, initially, police may not know if the reason the child is missing is a brief runaway episode, a lost child, a miscommunication about the child's whereabouts, or a stranger abduction, which emphasizes the importance of the initial investigation.
National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs)
There has long been a need for a national database of missing persons and unidentified dead that can be used by police, coroners and medical examiners, and the public, which cross-checks itself for matches between characteristics entered for missing persons and unidentified dead. There are as many as 40,000 sets of unidentified human remains in coroner and medical examiner offices across the United States and an additional 4,000 cases are added each year.17 In existence since 2008, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is sponsored by the National Institute of Justice in partnership with the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC). NamUs is a national clearinghouse for information and includes an online system with three databases, one for missing persons, one for unidentified dead, and a new database of unclaimed dead. The NamUs database can be searched/accessed by anyone—police, medical examiners/coroners, and families. Cases and updates to existing cases are vetted by NamUs experts before they are added, and police and coroners can keep sensitive case data away from public display. Only coroners and medical examiners are authorized to enter unidentified-dead (and unclaimed-dead) cases. These databases are linked, and searches can be performed by using a number of different identifiers, including scars, tattoos, clothing, jewelry, and DNA. NamUs cleared 18 cold cases in its first 18 months.
NamUs improves the efficiency with which dental records and other radiographs can be shared with experts; has extensive search capabilities; allows free access to expert anthropologists, odontologists, and fingerprint examiners; and provides free DNA testing. It allows for automatic searching of two of the databases to find similarities in missing-person and unidentified-dead cases. Unfortunately, most police agencies (as many as 93 percent) are not yet using NamUs.18 NamUs can only help police and missing persons families if police enter their missing-person cases into the system.
Source: NamUS website at www.namus.gov
Runaway and thrownaway juveniles (children forced from their home or abandoned) comprise the most significant portion of missing-person cases.† As many as 1.7 million children run away from home each year, with approximately 20 percent of those cases reported to police. Most runaway episodes last only a day or two (75 percent of such juveniles return home within a week), and most do not leave the local area.19
† Extensive research on missing children has been conducted by the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) through the Office of Justice Programs (OJP).
Although most runaway cases do not result in an arrest, there are approximately 100,000 juvenile runaway arrests each year.20 NCIC statistics show a decline in the number of juvenile runaways over the past few years, and this decline may reflect improvements in child well-being, such as reductions in teenage pregnancy and alcohol use, as well as general declines in violence and victimization.21 However, runaway cases still require a huge amount of police resources and may involve sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Juvenile runaways are at an increased likelihood of physical, drug, and sexual abuse; suicide; and child prostitution.22 A focus on high-risk victims can lead not only to reductions in repeat runaway behavior but can also help address child exploitation and trafficking, sexual assault, and organized crime.23, †
Juvenile runaways are at an increased risk of being exploited for child prostitution.
Photo Credit: Tomas Castelazo, Wikipedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prostitute_tj.jpg)
† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 37, Juvenile Runaways, for further information.
Children missing from care can be missing from institutional facilities or from alternative in-home care, such as foster care. Children in care are afforded more confidentiality protections than those not in care; thus, getting necessary information about these missing children will present challenges. Of the nearly 600,000 foster children in the United States, as many as 20 percent are missing from care at any given time, and most of those (98 percent) are considered runaways. The remaining 2 percent are unaccounted for, and their status is unknown.24 Some of these children have been taken by family members, and many have run away, but some proportion is at risk for homicide, suicide, or accidental deaths. Recent media reports have noted the increase in cases of teenage mothers, many who come from foster care, who run away with their infants to be with their child's father or other relatives.25
Although abductions of children by strangers are rare, they are high-profile cases, require a huge amount of police resources, and often pose a significant risk to the child. An estimated 115 child abductions by strangers occurred during the most recent NISMART study year.26 Teenagers and females were the most likely victims of abductions by strangers, and approximately half of the victims were sexually assaulted. These abductions were equally likely to have occurred during spring, summer, and fall. The fewer number of winter abduction cases likely mirrors other crime patterns that decline during winter months, when there is less opportunity for crime; in these cases, fewer children are outdoors without supervision. Males were the abductors in 93 percent of abductions by strangers, and persons in their 20s constituted about one-third of the abductors.27 Of these cases, 40 percent resulted in the murder of the child, and an additional 32 percent of the abducted children were injured.28
In addition to stereotypical child abductions/kidnappings by strangers, each year there are approximately 58,000 child victims of nonfamily abductions perpetrated by friends, acquaintances, and strangers in diverse situations.† Police data do not reflect nearly this number, as only about half of nonfamily abductions are reported to police; commonly because such abductions are not perceived to be dangerous situations, caretakers think the child will return, or caretakers do not know about the episode.29 Nonfamily abductions, as opposed to typical kidnappings, typically involve less forced movement and detention (but may involve moving the child using physical force or threat, detaining the child for at least an hour, and/or luring a child 15 or younger for purposes of concealment or with intent to keep the child permanently). In only about one-fifth of nonfamily abductions were police initially contacted to help locate the abducted child. Teenagers are the most likely victims in nonfamily abductions (81 percent of nonfamily abduction victims were 12 or over); females account for 65 percent of victims; and in nearly half of the cases, victims were sexually assaulted.30 Approximately one-third of the victims of nonfamily abductions are White and 42 percent are Black, although these estimates are not believed statistically reliable.31 However, other sources also point to the disproportionate representation of Black children as missing children.32
† These abductions although sometimes involving strangers, differ from the stereotypical abductions/kidnappings by strangers discussed above (and defined by Finkelhor, Hammer, and Sedlak 2002). The nonfamily abductions by friends and acquaintances (and sometimes strangers) in this category differ in terms of offender intent and other case characteristics and do not display the characteristics of stereotypical child abductions by strangers. Examples include a teenage girl forced into a car and detained for 4 hours by her ex-boyfriend, a 4-year-old boy taken on a joyride by a school bus driver, a babysitter who did not allow children to return home until she was paid for previous babysitting, a teenage girl detained by force while on a date and sexually assaulted, and a 10-year-old girl lured into a home and sexually assaulted by an 85-year old male acquaintance (Finkelhor et al. 2002).
About one-half of nonfamily abductions are perpetrated by someone known to the child, including friends, neighbors, caretakers, or other persons of authority.33 Males are the abductors in three-fourths of nonfamily abductions, and persons in their 20s constitute nearly half of nonfamily abductions.
The most likely place of a nonfamily abduction is an open area, such as a street, a public place, or wooded area. Sexual assault is the primary motive in nonfamily abductions. Weapons are involved in less than half of nonfamily abductions. Nonfamily abductions occur most frequently in the spring (36 percent) and are least likely to occur in the winter (15 percent).34
There are relatively few cases of nonfamily infant abductions—only about 3–14 cases nationwide per year—and even that figure appears to be declining. Historically, they occurred primarily in health care facilities and were committed by women seeking a baby, often because of a faked pregnancy.35 Most of these infants (92 percent) are successfully recovered, quick reporting to police being vital to recovery.36 However, due to increased healthcare facility security, some of these still rare events cases now occur at the home of the mother and some of these cases involve violence (15 percent), and some cases have involved the killing of the mother (9 percent) and, more rarely, the killing of both parents. In many of the cases involving the death of the mother, the infant is abducted by cesarean section at the mother's or the offender's home.37
Most abductions of children are perpetrated by noncustodial parents, sometimes referred to as "family abductions."† Over 200,000 children a year (and this number appears to be declining) are victims of family abductions, although only about one-quarter of them were reported to police. More than half of family abductions are perpetrated by the biological father, and an additional 25 percent are perpetrated by the biological mother.38 Almost half of the family-abducted children are under the age of 6, and about half are missing for less than a week, with about one-fourth missing for less than a day. Male and female children are equally likely to be the victims in family abductions. The most likely place that abductions occur is their or someone else's home or yard; school/daycare abductions are relatively rare. The majority of the children abducted are with the abductor just before the abduction; typically, in these abductions, the children are not returned to the custodial parent after visits. Family abductions are more likely to occur in the summer. Most of the children are returned (91 percent).39 Contributing factors to family abductions may include unresolved conflicts over child-custody issues that make abduction seem a last option.
† State laws on criminal custodial interference vary from state to state.
Family-abduction cases may be prolonged and may sometimes involve international implications. There have been a number of legislative initiatives affecting family abductions (see Appendix B). These cases involve significant legal, civil, and liability issues regarding the enforcement of the most recent custody order.40 According to NCMEC officials, about half of international cases of U.S. child abduction involve abductors who do or may flee to Mexico.41
Missing children that do not fall within any of the above categories are commonly missing because of miscommunication: they are too young to contact a caretaker; or they are lost, stranded, or injured and therefore unable to contact a caretaker. As many as 200,000 children a year are involuntarily missing from caretakers because they were lost, injured, or stranded. These children are most commonly White male teens who disappeared from wooded areas or parks. An additional nearly 350,000 children are missing for benign reasons; they are not actually lost, injured, abducted, victimized, or runaways. Rather, their cases were basically false alarms.42 Most of those missing for benign explanations are teenagers who failed to return home when expected. The reasons for these types of cases (MILI and MBE) can include car trouble or car accidents, inclement weather, poor communication, helping a friend, riding the wrong bus, truancy, or sleeping in unknown places. Most of these children are teenagers, missing for fewer than six hours.43 Although these categories of missing children account for far greater numbers than kidnapped or abducted children, less attention has been paid to preventing cases of MILI and MBE children, as opposed to cases of runaway and abducted children. As the popularity of adventures such as hiking, camping, boating, flying, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities increase, police may encounter more of these cases. Children missing for the reasons described here often come from families that are otherwise socially and economically stressed, a confluence of factors that leave such children more vulnerable to going missing.44
Adult missing-person cases typically fall into the following categories: "adults missing involuntary," "endangered adults," "disabled adults," "adults missing in catastrophes," and "other."45
Just over half of all active missing-person cases are missing adults and thus, at any given time, there are over 50,000 active missing-adult cases in police files.46, † While adult males account for 58 percent of all (not just active) missing-adult cases, younger missing adults are disproportionately female.47 About two-thirds of missing adults are White; about one-fourth are Black; and 6 percent are American Indian, Asian, or other races.48 Blacks are again disproportionately represented as missing adults, although not quite at the level of missing children.
† In the past, when a missing child turned 18 years of age, some police agencies removed the missing-child cases from their records. However, the 2006 Adam Walsh Act mandates that these records be converted to missing-adult cases (NCMEC 2006).
NCIC Adult Missing-Persons Categories
1. A person of any age who is missing and who is under proven physical/mental disability or is senile, thereby subjecting that person or others to personal and immediate danger.
2. A person of any age who is missing under circumstances indicating that the disappearance was not voluntary.
3. A person of any age who is missing under circumstances indicating that that person's physical safety may be in danger.
4. A person of any age who is missing after a catastrophe.
5. A person who is missing and declared unemancipated as defined by the laws of the person's state of residence and does not meet any of the entry criteria set forth in 1–4 above.
Source: National Crime Information Center www.fas.org/irp/agency/doj/fbi/is/ncic.htm
Unlike juveniles, adults can legally go missing, and often they do so out of a wish to escape relationship difficulties, financial problems, depression, or just to disappear. When police locate these persons, they cannot divulge their location to those who reported them missing, just that they were located and do not wish to be contacted. Although adults have the right to go missing and may in fact not be officially missing, police resources are consumed by following up on these missing-adult cases to determine the circumstances.
This category of missing adults includes elderly persons as walkaways from home or care facilities, as well as other adults with autism, Downs Syndrome, dementia, Alzheimer's, and other cognitive disabilities. As our population ages, those adults with some form of dementia, including, but not limited to, Alzheimer's, will become more common missing-person cases. At least 3 million persons with Alzheimer's disease are being cared for in their homes or the homes of family members, and the care is provided primarily by family members.49 Dementia may be associated with wandering behavior.50 As many as 6 in 10 people with Alzheimer's will engage in wandering behavior.51
Natural disasters and catastrophes can also cause people—adults and children—to go missing. Hurricane Katrina created hundreds of missing-persons cases: 5 years later, 135 cases were still open, and approximately 30 unidentified-dead cases remained unsolved. There may be many more missing-person cases, perhaps two times the known missing-persons total associated with Hurricane Katrina that were never officially counted as missing.52
Most missing persons are not reported as missing to police. Some proportions of these missing persons were victims of foul play and clearly were involuntarily missing and endangered.
Prostitutes are a particularly vulnerable pool of victims of serial murder. In many cases, these victims are not part of police missing-person cases because no one reported them as missing or because they had outstanding warrants and departmental policy was not to accept missing-person cases for those with outstanding warrants.53 Presumably, the logic behind this procedural rule was that those with outstanding warrants are considered more likely to be fugitives than missing. In the Green River prostitute serial-murder case, 11 of the 48 victims had no active missing-person case. An additional five victims were unidentified dead and were also likely to have been among the "missing missing," meaning that as many as one-third of the victims were not known to be missing before their deaths. Many other recent serial-murder cases have included "missing missing" victims.54, † Although some missing-persons risk assessments would categorize those with outstanding warrants for nonviolent crimes as low-urgency cases,55 these cases can in fact be very high risk. Although from 1970 through 2009, 32 percent of serial-murder cases included female prostitute victims, more recently, from 2000 through 2009, the proportion of serial-murder cases involving female prostitute victims climbed to 69 percent of the total, and serial murderers who kill prostitutes kill for longer periods of time and amass more victims.56 Rather than paying less attention to a missing prostitute who is assumed to live a transient lifestyle and perhaps to have outstanding warrants, you should treat the disappearance of prostitutes as high-risk cases.
† The Herbert Baumeister (Indianapolis), Robert Berdella (Kansas City), Jeffrey Dahmer (Milwaukee), John Wayne Gacy (Chicago), and Robert Lee Yates (Spokane, Washington) cases all included a significant proportion of missing missing victims (Quinet 2009).
Another group of missing persons not likely to be reported as missing is the homeless, especially those with mental illness. This population of missing persons may have become so estranged from family and friends that no missing-person report is filed, and if they are located by police and are over age 21, the police cannot disclose their location to those reporting them as missing, thus creating stress for families and friends and potential frustration with police.
Recent proposed changes to the Vancouver Police Department policy on missing persons modifies the previous definition of high-risk persons (those under age 12, the elderly, and those with physical and mental disabilities) to include marginalized persons such as the homeless, drug- or alcohol-addicted persons, persons with mental health disorders, prostitutes, and persons who may be subject to cultural bias (e.g., the aboriginal Canadian population).57
Illegal immigrants are also likely to be part of the "missing missing" population. Undocumented border crossers/illegal immigrants in Arizona constitute a large part of the unidentified-dead population.58 These undocumented border crossers are technically not missing persons in the United States but may have missing-person reports in Mexico, thus requiring cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican governments and police. This issue is increasing in frequency, and a recent symposium on border crossing deaths finds that over a 6-year period, as many as 1,000 persons died trying to cross into Arizona.59 In Mexico, families can enter information about their missing into a database that can then be checked by missing-victims' advocates in the United States, and in the event that unidentified remains are located in a U.S. medical examiners office, fingerprints and DNA matching is bringing closure for some families.60
In addition to those voluntarily crossing into the United States, others are brought here against their will.† Although the exact number of persons trafficked into the United States is not known, if they escape their traffickers, their disappearance may never be reported to police, and although they are missing persons, their eventual discovery may be a result of other criminal investigations or of unidentified remains.‡
† A recent FBI news release spotlighted the arrests of several persons involved in human trafficking of hundreds of Thai farm workers into forced labor on U.S. farms (FBI 2011).
‡ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 38, Exploitation of Trafficked Women, for additional information.
You may order free bound copies in any of three ways:
Phone: 800-421-6770 or 202-307-1480
Allow several days for delivery.
Send an e-mail with a link to this guide.
Error sending email. Please review your enteries below.
Separate multiple addresses with commas (,)
Please limit your note to 200 characters.