What to Do If Your Child Goes Missing

Last modified: July 18, 2021

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Having a child go missing is a scary experience. In the US, alone over a thousand children go missing every single day. 

Typically, this is due to children running away from home, parental abduction, or abduction from a stranger. Luckily, most of these children are found within the first 72 hours of the disappearance. 

There are several processes and protocols you can follow to help increase the chances of locating and getting your child back safely. 

What to do if Your Child Goes Missing: The First 24 Hours

The first 24 hours are incredibly important. If you believe your child is missing, you need to act fast. You don’t have to wait 24 hours to report a missing child.

You should report your child as missing to local law enforcement right away and ask them to enter your child’s information into a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) missing person file. If your child is under 18, there’s no wait time for your child to be added to this list. You can also request that a Be On the Lookout (BOLO) bulletin be put out and an Amber Alert. 

If the child has disappeared from your home, then make sure you don’t touch or move anything, as it can be possible evidence that can help find your child. However, you do want to see if they’ve taken any notable items, which might suggest they’ve run away, rather than been abducted. 

For more help or advice you can also call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

Make sure you give the following information to law enforcement:

  • A description of your child including the clothing they were wearing at the time of the disappearance
  • Any recent photographs you have of your child
  • The circumstances surrounding the disappearance
  • Any people who’ve moved in our out of the neighborhood recently
  • People who have shown an increased interest in your family recently 
  • Any additional information about your child that you think may be helpful in the search

It can also be helpful to conduct a thorough search for your home and property, including areas like attics, basements, sheds, and heating and cooling ducts. If your house is large, there’s a chance they could be hidden on your property somewhere. 

Reach Out to Friends and Family

You should notify your friends and family as soon as possible that your child is missing. In some cases, your child might have run away to a close relative’s house.

You can expand your list of friends and acquaintances as well to anyone who might have seen your child before they went missing. This can include delivery drivers, mailmen, neighbors, teachers, and more.

You can also check local events calendars in your area to see if there are any events your child might have been at. Your goal is to expand your search as wide as possible and communicate to as many people as possible about the disappearance. 

In cooperation with the police, you can also create a ground search team comprised of friends and family to search areas like:

  • Places where they would play outdoors, like playgrounds and parks
  • The places your child normally spent time, like the community center, local stores, or the route they would walk to school
  • Outdoor places like rivers, lakes, or streams
  • Places throughout your town that are abandoned like buildings and cars

Use Social Media

Social media can give you clues to where your child was last seen. You probably won’t have access to your child’s passwords, but looking at their friend’s list or recent activity may give you some clues.

If your child is old enough to have a cellphone, you may be able to track their location with an app. Most iPhones and Android phones have a built-in find my phone feature that’ll pinpoint the location. They might not have their phone with them, but at the very least it can help you find their last known location. 

Additional Ways to Find a Missing Child

Here are some additional ways you can expand your search for your missing child:

Get the Public Involved

You should spread the information regarding your missing child as far and wide as possible. One way to do that is to get the public involved to help spread the word.

For example, you can create posters and distribute them around your town or city and create a page on social media to spread the word. 

You want the disappearance of your child to be as well publicized as possible, and include a phone number to the local police department to report and tips or possible leads. 

Use Missing People Websites

There are all kinds of websites that provide information on missing people and children. You can add your child’s information to these sites to help get the word out about your child.

For example, India has a website called Lost and Found where parents can upload the information and a picture of their missing child and this information will be shared with the police and local authorities. 

Here are some additional missing children websites:

Hire a Private Investigator

Private investigators can help to supplement a police investigation. Hiring a private investigator can help you feel more involved in the investigation. Make sure you hire a private investigator that has experience with missing children’s cases, as they’ll have valuable experience that can help with the search. 

The efforts of both a private investigator and the police can help to improve the chances of your child being found. 

Missing Kids Statistics

Runaway Children

One common cause of children going missing is when they run away. This is more common than you might think as one in seven children between the ages of 10 and 17 runs away at least once.

The reasons why children run away are complex, but usually, it’s done to regain some form of control over their lives.

Here’s how you can help ensure your kid returns home safely:

Gather All Relevant Information

The moment you notice your child is missing and you suspect they’ve run away you’ll need to gather as much information as possible to aid in the search.

You should check their room and see if you can identify any item they took that might suggest where they’ve run off to. You can also get in touch with their friends, workplace, or school, to figure out when they were last seen.

Call 911 

You’ll want to get in touch with a police officer as soon as possible. You’ll want to give them any relevant information that may help them find your runaway child:

  • A physical description including what clothes they were last wearing
  • The most recent photos you have
  • The message that was left behind (if any)
  • The names of friends
  • Places they tend to frequent
  • Their normal schedule
  • Anything else that can aid in the search

You must be honest with the police about the circumstances that led up to them running away. 

Remain Calm if Your Child Contacts You

If your child has run away from home there’s a good chance they’ll reach out to you after the initial emotions and fear subside.

It’s important to remain calm if this happens. Your goal should be to ensure their safety and keep the conversation going, not to react with anger.

Here are some questions you can ask:

  • Are you safe?
  • Do you want to talk?
  • Can I do anything for you?
  • Can I talk to you again?
  • Do you want me to pick you up?

Missing Kids FAQ

Why do children go missing?

There are a variety of reasons children go missing. The majority of missing children’s reports are due to runaways. However, most of these children are safely located within a few days of their disappearance. Other common reasons children go missing are due to parental abduction, parental abduction where the child is taken to another country, and a child being abducted by someone they don’t know. In certain cases, sexual abuse and even sex trafficking can occur. Learn more ahead of time and be prepared by watching this free training video by MillionKids.org that covers sex trafficking and social media exploitation.

Are child abductions by strangers common?

Child abductions by strangers only account for less than 1% of all missing children reports. However, these cases do tend to get the most publicized and picked up by the media. 

Why would parents kidnap their own children?

Child abduction by parent cases occur when there’s a dispute over child custody, or one parent wants to exert control or power over the other parent or children. 

What is the Amber Alert program?

The Amber Alert program is a partnership between law enforcement agencies and broadcasters to send out urgent bulletins for serious child abduction cases. Amber Alerts are issued when circumstances surrounding the disappearance or abduction indicate the child is in danger and the police have enough information that issuing a broadcast will help to locate the child.

Is there a waiting period for filing a report?

There is no law that requires a waiting period, but different departments may have different policies. The sooner you get in touch with law enforcement, the better, so they can begin their investigation. 

Can I file a missing person’s report by phone?

Most police departments will refuse to accept a missing person report by telephone. They need to verify that the report is legitimate and the person making the report is a member of the family. 

Can you use the media to help the investigation?

Yes, but it’s important that the media coverage won’t interfere with the existing investigation. You can contact your local and national news networks with details about your missing child to see if they’ll run a story to obtain more information about the disappearance. It’s important that you coordinate these stories with law enforcement, so they can act on any information that’s obtained.

How long do missing children cases remain active?

As long as the child is still missing, the case will remain active. If the search has gone on for a while, it’s important to continue to keep the community and media engaged. This can be done by creating a page on social media, sharing updates, doing candlelight vigils, and more. 

Who conducts missing child investigations?

Missing children investigations are done by a variety of local, state, and federal departments including the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Marshals Service, state attorney generals, and more. Sometimes, special task forces are formed, like Operation Not Forgotten, which safely recovered 26 missing children and located another 13 across Georgia. 

Missing Children Resources

Here are some additional helpful missing children resources: