• Center for Problem oriented policing

previous page next page

Responses to the Problem of Missing Persons

Your analysis of your local missing-persons problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem.

It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: rather, carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.)

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

1. Collaborating with other agencies. Create formal partnerships with schools, hospitals, care facilities, and fire and rescue agencies to create prevention and intervention strategies. Consider establishing a missing-person advisory committee comprising representatives of all key agencies. Establish search protocols with fire, emergency, and other police personnel to coordinate search resources (e.g., canine, aviation, and dive resources).61

A significant issue is the use of agency records to locate missing persons. Finding out if missing persons are in jail may be relatively easy for police, but finding out if they are in the hospital, in a domestic violence shelter or enrolled in a school in another state is more difficult.

To access school records, medical and dental care records†, child welfare records, domestic violence shelters, and runaway shelter records, you will have to negotiate a memoranda of understanding with a number of different agencies and will need parental consent in cases involving the release of juvenile records.62 Time is lost during the critical early hours of a missing-person investigation if police are forced to get court orders to find out if a person has been admitted to or released from a hospital or a psychiatric facility or is present in a juvenile guardian home. Limited information may be available, and in the case of domestic violence shelters, confidentiality is required by federal statute, and police are not exempted from such restrictions.63

† The 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) provides federal protections of privacy for personal health information. 

Even other government agencies may not release information that could help in missing-person cases. Recent media reports reveal that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will not release information about the location of persons filing tax returns, and in some cases, these persons may be fugitive parents who have abducted their children.64 Studies suggest that the social security numbers of the abducted children and their abductors often appear on tax returns, along with their current location. However, privacy laws forbid the IRS to divulge this information unless the abduction is being investigated as a federal crime and a judge orders the release of the information. The IRS does include pictures of missing children, along with forms mailed to taxpayers, and there has been successful recovery of 80 children with this program.‡ But missing-person advocates commonly call for legislation that would permit the IRS to release tax information more readily to missing-person investigators.65

‡ Picture Them Home, a NCMEC project, encourages corporate sponsorship of displays of pictures of missing children on police vehicles, semitrucks, brochures, websites, posters, and screensavers; the project also promotes the distribution of photos of missing children.

a. Working with social service agencies. Collaborating with social service agencies can reduce the amount of time police spend on cases and can especially contribute to a reduction of repeat runaways and/or repeat dementia wandering cases. Establish collaborations for sharing agencies' proprietary databases.66 Collaboration with domestic violence shelters, juvenile guardian homes, assisted-living facilities, and family respite programs can prevent persons from going missing and can develop placement facilities and other options for at-risk persons.

Domestic violence shelters may be housing persons who have been reported as missing, and you will need to develop close working relationships to protect privacy but also resolve missing-person cases. Counseling centers and various advocacy groups can provide police with information about their client group.

Child protection agencies and foster care providers can provide data about placement numbers, high-risk persons, those missing from care, and detailed information after the return of missing children (e.g., the location of the child while missing and persons involved in the child going missing).

Share your police missing-person report form with child welfare agencies so they will know what sort of information police need in missing-person cases.

b. Working with family court. Work with family court to provide services in custody disputes and contentious divorces and in cases of domestic violence, including training and information about cross-cultural and/or international marriages. The Fresno Police Department developed a model program to reduce child custody disputes and provide controlled exchange environments for parents with no contact between the exchanging parties. A safe exchange program, involving formal authorities, for parents sharing custody of children may help to reduce the temptation to abduct children.67

c. Working with the prosecutor's office. Prosecutors can provide information about orders of protection and child custody status and about the status of laws regarding police access to information (e.g., active cell phone records and "pings"). In family abductions, police will have to verify the most recent custody orders and work with the custodial parent to retrieve information and authorizations for information from schools and medical facilities. Significant federal legislation exists that affects child abduction cases, but you should also become familiar with legislation in your state and consider regular training sessions with prosecutors' offices.68

d. Working with social service and nonprofits that serve homeless, mentally ill, or prostitute populations. Partnerships with local homeless service providers, mental health centers, and groups that provide services for prostitutes have found success in lowering the number of these types of missing-person cases.69 A nonprofit group, Project Jason, sponsors a program known as Come Home, which focuses on the homeless as missing persons and places missing-person posters in homeless shelters, food kitchens, and other locations where homeless persons gather. Project Jason also organizes 18-Wheel Angels, another program that enlists long-haul truckers in helping to locate and distribute posters of missing persons.70

Mental health centers and veterans' services, including hospitals, may be able to provide information to help locate missing persons. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides a guide for families of the homeless or mentally ill.71 Families of missing mentally ill adults may need to consider involuntary commitment options, guardianship and conservatorship laws in their state, and other options for community mental health treatment.

Model strategies exist for identification programs for prostitutes in the event that they are suspected victims of foul play.72 Agencies that work closely with prostitutes may be able to enlist prostitutes to help locate missing prostitutes.

e. Working with coroner and medical examiners. Coroners and medical examiners can work with police agencies to provide DNA, fingerprint, X-ray, and dental information on unidentified dead for uploading into the NamUs unidentified-dead system for a national search and a possible match to missing persons across the country. The Doe Network, a volunteer organization in existence since 2000, also provides another resource for information on missing-person and unidentified-dead open cases.

f. Working with schools. Obtaining parents' or other guardians' written consent to release school records may be necessary. Developing joint protocols and record-sharing agreements between schools and police can reduce the amount of time police spend gathering necessary information. Schools can also serve as primary places for prevention by educating teachers and staff about the warning signs of runaway or abduction and by providing information on social services available. San Diego police developed a model worksheet as part of a school-based program for educating children and parents about what to do when parents do not arrive to pick their children up, about their children's routes to and from school, and about the names and phone numbers of their children's friends. This information was kept at the school, and as a result, police may not even be contacted about a missing child because the child is more easily discovered by parents and/or school officials.73 Connecting the families of schoolchildren who go missing for benign reasons with social service resources can help to prevent repeat events.

g. Working with medical providers. Medical providers can work with police to identify patients in health care facilities who have been reported as missing. You should seek to develop joint protocols and record sharing agreements that allow for parental consent for medical records of juveniles or of those under other guardianship (e.g., for use with Silver Alerts in cases where medical issues are necessary for alert).

h. Working with foster care and children's guardian homes. Educate child welfare providers to assure they have recent photographs of all children in their care. Ensure that police have access to child welfare representatives 24 hours a day. Establish policies for what to do when a missing child is located, including a child in another jurisdiction. Enhance collaboration and cooperation—e.g., by creating joint protocols for handling missing-from-care cases. Engage in joint training. Children's guardian homes should immediately notify police when a child is missing from care and provide recent photographs and other information (e.g., family and friends, previous missing episodes, substance use).

i. Working with high-risk facilities. At facilities from which clients frequently go missing, such as child guardian homes, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, mental health institutions, etc., develop reliable and dignified identification systems for persons who might not have the mental capacity to report their identity or residence, if located.

Assisted-living facilities can also provide information, including recent photographs of residents, their previous missing episodes, and their possible destinations.

j. Working with state-level missing-person clearinghouses and NCMEC. State missing-person clearinghouses can provide information about nonprofits, private agencies, and other entities that can provide assistance. For those cases where a child is thought to be in jeopardy, Team Adam provides police with extensive resources, including search-and-rescue, computer forensics, equipment, and family advocacy for cases involving missing and abducted children as well as sexually exploited children. Team Adam members include retired police professionals who provide free assistance at the site through a program run by NCMEC.74

Entities such as NamUs can provide information about the characteristics of the unidentified dead across the United States for possible matches to missing persons and can publicize details of active missing-person cases. The Doe Network also contains information on thousands of unidentified-dead and missing-person cases and their volunteers have successfully brought case closure to many families.75

k.Working with local media. Media can be a critical resource for distributing information to the local community and for encouraging citizens to share information with police. In recent years the media have been criticized for giving greater coverage to cases in which young, White, physically attractive females are missing than to other cases;76 whatever criteria media use to determine coverage, you shouldn't take for granted that all cases will receive the coverage you desire.

1. Working with employers. Employers may be able to provide information about a missing person's last whereabouts, as well as fingerprint and other contact information.

2. Training police and other emergency response personnel. Training increases understanding of the different categories of missing persons, improving both the search and the post-recovery responses. All police officers handling missing-person cases should also be trained in legislation, liability, orders of protection and orders of custody, case management, search issues, and working with families. Dispatchers should also be trained as the first point of contact regarding how to calm reporting persons and to get accurate and necessary information. Police may also need training for reunification—how to manage the return of the child and to offer additional resources—as well as when to seek physical exams, how to interview recovered missing persons, and when to use referral services such as mental health professionals.† Police, fire and emergency-rescue personnel, and volunteers might also benefit from some aspects of missing-persons response training, particularly for cases involving search-and-rescue.77

† Training opportunities exist through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "Responding to Missing and Abducted Children" and other training courses exist through the NCMEC, including the implementation of model policies developed by NCMEC and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for response to, investigation of, and recovery of missing children and missing adults.

3. Educating the public. Encourage families and caregivers to keep up-to-date pictures of children and others at risk of going missing. Encourage people to call the police immediately when someone is missing and to let the police know when the missing person has returned or when their whereabouts are known. Increasing public awareness of the importance of prompt reports to police is critical because delayed reporting hampers searches and investigations.78

‡ See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns for further information

Encourage reporting of the missing missing. Implement programs that allow prostitutes and homeless persons to share information about possible missing persons with police in nonpunitive ways. Programs such as the Arlington, Texas, citizen notification and CrimeWeb program provide a ZIP Code- and Internet-based e-mail-alert system for public safety issues, including missing persons.79

Even though the effectiveness of many child awareness/education programs is unknown, logic suggests that you should not limit prevention messages to the relatively rare abductions by strangers ("stranger danger"). Prevention messages should also cover abductions by acquaintances, including teaching children rules about going places, even with someone they know.

Specific Responses to Missing Persons

4. Enhancing case files. The identification of missing persons can be facilitated with additional information from dental records, DNA, and fingerprints. Many states' laws require that dental records be requested and retrieved for all missing persons after some period (typically 30–60 days). One study found that dental records had been obtained for only 4 percent of missing persons.80 It is critical to at least have the name of the missing person's dentist on file if remains are found at some point.81 Although dental records, DNA, and fingerprints are most likely to be used to match remains with known identities, this evidence can also be used to identify living located missing persons in cases of amnesia and other cognitive dysfunctions, as well as to identify infants or children who had been abducted but who may be recovered years later.

Legally accepted methods of identifying the dead include visual identification by next of kin, fingerprints and footprints, dental records, and DNA. The National Dental Image/Information Repository (NDIR) allows storage of dental information for missing, unidentified, and wanted persons—information which is more than what can be entered into NCIC. NamUs also stores and shares dental information.

DNA can be the critical connection for matching the unidentified dead to missing-person cases. DNA can be submitted to the National Missing Person DNA Database managed by the FBI, and DNA profiles of family members can also be included in the NamUs files for missing and unidentified persons. Recent media coverage suggests that the FBI Laboratory gives low priority to missing-person cases and that as much as 40 percent of the FBI DNA backlog consists of missing-person cases, some waiting more than 2 years to be processed.82 Clearly, DNA backlogs interfere with a local police agency's ability to successfully and timely resolve missing-persons cases. The NamUs system includes access to a DNA laboratory that is available free to police working on missing-person and unidentified-dead cases and it is also assisting with the overall DNA backlog in these cases.83

Fingerprints, when available, can also be collected and added to missing-person case reports. The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program (US-VISIT) fingerprints most non-U.S. citizens who enter the United States. Although the primary goal of this program is the identification of suspected terrorists, persons with criminal histories, and illegal immigrants, in the event that these persons later became missing persons, authorities should remember that their fingerprints are likely on file with US-VISIT.84 Similar programs exist in other countries, and these could serve as information sources in cases of international abductions.

Dental Records

Dental records can be used to match the unidentified dead with missing persons across the country
Photo Credit: Shutterstock 

5. Promoting the use of endangered-missing advisories. The AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert system allows the media to generate public service announcements in cases of abducted children that meet specific criteria† and thereby generate a short-term intense focus on that missing child. Initially, AMBER Alerts were intended for cases of abductions by strangers, but they have been expanded to include abductions by others, including family members. Once it has been established that an abduction has occurred, that the case has been entered into NCIC, that the child (age 17 or younger) is in danger, and that information exists to allow for a description of the victim and suspect, police can provide the information to the media, which can then broadcast alerts.85 Facebook and the NCMEC have recently launched a partnership to make AMBER Alerts available to Facebook users who live in the geographic area of the AMBER Alert.86 In addition, a new national alert plan, the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), will alert the public to geographically targeted emergencies, including AMBER Alerts and other missing-person alerts via text messages to cell phones.87 Participating wireless carriers will be able to distribute these alerts to persons with cell phones containing special chips and software. There were 1,356 AMBER Alerts involving 1,689 children issued across the United States from 2004 through 2009, with 510 reported successful recoveries.88

† AMBER Alert was part of the 2003 Congressional PROTECT Act (Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today).

Some jurisdictions have found innovative ways to bring longer term attention to cold-case missing children. The Washington State Patrol's Homeward Bound Project worked with trucking companies and other interested parties to place large pictures of missing children on the sides of commercial trailers to create rolling billboards that would be seen by many more people over a wider area. One of their selected missing children was recovered as a result of the publicity.89

Silver Alerts® were originally intended to facilitate searches for older adults with mental impairments, but most state adoptions of the Silver Alert program extend the coverage to all mentally impaired persons 18 and over.90 As of March 2010, Silver Alert systems had been adopted by 18 states, and an additional 14 states had pending legislation.91

The U.S. Department of Justice has published a guide for developing an Endangered Missing Advisory (EMA) for notification of the public regarding missing-person cases that do not meet AMBER Alert and Silver Alert criteria (e.g., children who have not been abducted and missing adults with no cognitive impairment).92

Amber Alert

The AMBER Alert system allows the media to generate public service announcements in cases of abducted children that meet specific criteria and thereby generate a short-term intense focus on that missing child.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amber_Alert.jpg)

6. Promoting the use of search and information technology. Technological innovations can aid in searches for missing persons. Project Lifesaver is a nonprofit organization that uses GPS tracking devices to find persons with Alzheimer's, autism, and Down syndrome. Such devices can shorten searches considerably. Even tracking the location of a missing person's cell phone or other electronic device can be helpful in locating the person.

Databases containing information about persons known to be at high risk for going missing can also facilitate returning the person home if and when they are found. Irvine, California, police developed a model program for gathering biographical information, previous wandering patterns, current photographs (in digital format for ease of distribution), and cognitive information for at-risk persons with cognitive disorders.93 The FBI has developed a mobile app, known as "Child ID," for parents to store information about their children (e.g., height, weight, photos) on their cell phones, to be shared with police if the child goes missing.94

7. Enlisting volunteers to support missing-person searches, investigations, and prevention. Many jurisdictions have implemented volunteer programs to assist police with programs relating to missing persons. Volunteers help in activities such as verifying addresses in sex offender registries, replacing batteries in electronic tracking devices, and assisting in active investigations by canvassing door to door, providing perimeter controls, providing relief services to police and other volunteers, helping with searches, answering phones, and maintaining missing-person files. There are model protocols for the recruitment, training, and coordination of civilian volunteers.95

8. Providing families with information and support. Information on the status of a missing-person investigation should be shared with family and friends, as allowed by law and as the investigation warrants. Families need to understand what to expect as investigations progress. For example, families need to know that if adults are voluntarily missing, police will not divulge their location when it is discovered if the missing persons request privacy. Families should also be apprised of counseling resources. Team HOPE offers support resources for families with missing and exploited children and can assist families in dealing with the psychological impacts of missing-child cases. The Doe Network also provides support and assistance to the families of missing persons. A model program for family support exists at the Australia Federal Police's National Missing Persons Coordination Centre; its website offers resources for dealing with ambiguous loss, common mental health issues for families of missing persons, continued support after the location of the missing person, and support services for the families of the long-term missing.96

9. Facilitating at-risk person's return home. For missing persons found far from their home, returning them home can be a challenge. The Greyhound bus company provides free bus transportation home for recovered abducted and runaway children, in collaboration with NCMEC and the National Runaway Switchboard, respectively.97 Many communities have emergency shelters operated by nonprofit organizations for runaways and at-risk children.98

10. Ensuring proper cancellation of resolved cases. Remove recovered missing-persons alerts from NCIC within 3 days of their recovery. Follow up regularly with family members and other reporting parties to determine whether the missing person has returned. Reporters often neglect to notify police if the missing person is located without police assistance.

11. Focusing on repeat missing persons. Link missing persons to appropriate social services when they return to prevent repeat occurrences and to improve future police responses. NCMEC coordinates the Runaway Relapse and Prevention Group that focuses on preventing repeat runaways through counseling, training, crisis intervention, and other support services.99, † The Lancashire (United Kingdom) Constabulary developed a model program for working with runaways and other missing children with a thorough post-return interview by persons with whom juveniles will feel comfortable sharing their experiences. This project focused on identifying children who had been subject to child sexual exploitation and who may not have even recognized it themselves.100

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 37, Juvenile Runaways, for further details on responses to runaway problems. 

12. Planning for disasters and catastrophes. Conduct case scenario and tabletop exercises to prepare to effectively manage a large volume of missing-person cases after a tornado, flood, fire, hurricane, explosion, or other natural disaster. The International Committee of the Red Cross aids in finding missing persons after large-scale disasters through its "Family Links" website.101, †

† The Family Links website allows people to register the name of the missing person and contact details in the language spoken in the area affected. 

13. Promoting legislation that allows police access to information. Support legislation that allows police immediate access to cell phone records and computer activity for finding missing persons believed to be in imminent danger.‡

‡ The Kelsey Smith Act, H.R. 847, was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in April 2011 for federal approval. Several states have already passed a version of this law that allows police to request and obtain call information from providers of mobile services when the case involves emergency situations that involve death or risk of physical harm and that are not necessarily yet criminal investigations. H.R. 847 also provides for training for police to collect and use call-location information in emergencies.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

14. Handling cases over the telephone. Although the initial contact may be made over the telephone and police should make it easy for citizens to file a missing-person report (by telephone, fax, or e-mail), a missing-persons detective or uniformed officer should be dispatched to the reporting person's location and to the location the missing person was last seen as soon as possible after the initial report is made to canvass for information, to search the area where the missing person was last seen, and to talk to potential witnesses or others with information.

15. Rejecting cases for missing persons with outstanding warrants. If an NCIC record already exists for an individual because he or she has an outstanding warrant, the NCIC record should be modified to note that the person is also missing and may be endangered.

16. Arresting juveniles for running away from home. A punitive response to runaways may decrease the likelihood of reporting by parents and other custodians and may make it less likely that runaways will offer police information about their whereabouts when missing, and about criminal and sexual victimization.

17. Forcing runaway juveniles to return home. Children may be fleeing abusive relatives and/or may be thrownaway and abandoned/deserted children.

previous page next page