The Search
Chapter 1

Not knowing where your child is or if he or she is okay is the hardest thing in the world to handle.

-- Colleen Nick

When a child is reported missing, emotions become raw, which can hinder the ability of parents to make rational decisions. Yet, the actions of parents and of law enforcement in the first 48 hours are critical to the safe recovery of a missing child. Knowing what you can do, what others can do, and where to go for help will not only expedite the search and recovery of your child, it also will help to ease the emotional and financial burden of the search. This chapter examines your role and the role of others in the immediate search for your missing child and discusses what steps should be taken in the event that your child does not return within the first few days.

Your Role in the Search: The First 48 Hours

In the initial stage of the search, devote your time to providing information to and answering questions from investigators. Once you discover that your child is missing, you will desperately want to help with the search. You may, in fact, wonder how you possibly can stand by and let others look for your child. But the reality is that in most instances, the best use of your energy is not on the physical search itself. Rather, you need to provide information to and answer questions from investigators and to be at home in the event your child calls. The checklist Gathering Evidence in the First 48 Hours identifies the most crucial pieces of background information and evidence that law enforcement will need in the search for your child.

The Role of Law Enforcement in the Search

When a child has disappeared, most of the initial searching of the area where the child is believed to have been last will be coordinated by law enforcement -- either Federal, State, or local, depending on the circumstances of the disappearance. Law enforcement needs to direct the search effort in order to make sure that the search is performed properly and that the evidence located during the search -- and at the crime scene -- is properly protected and preserved.

Usually, law enforcement agencies can quickly obtain the necessary equipment and mobilize additional personnel by bringing in outside forces. Because time is a critical factor in the search and recovery effort, equipment and staff should be requested at the beginning of the process. Your local agency may request that tracking or trailing dogs, infrared devices that locate heat given off from the body, or helicopters be delivered to the scene and may request help from the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, other military personnel, or correctional institution staff. Many of these groups are already trained in search procedures, and their established chain of command makes the search effort more likely to be thorough, comprehensive, and efficient. In addition, the FBI maintains Field Offices that have Evidence Response Teams that could be of assistance in cases of missing or abducted children.

In many communities, law enforcement agencies have an established plan, similar to an emergency relief or disaster plan, to guide their search and recovery efforts. Ask your law enforcement agency about its plan. Make sure the agency has a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management (published by NCMEC), which provides step-by-step instructions on how to respond to and investigate missing children cases and details procedures for conducting and managing the search. Also, make sure that your law enforcement agency has a copy of the Child Abduction Response Plan (published by the FBI and available from local Crimes Against Children Coordinators in FBI Field Offices), which emphasizes the techniques that are essential in conducting abduction investigations.

Typically, your law enforcement agency will designate one or two persons to coordinate and manage the search. Ask for the name and telephone number of your law enforcement coordinator as soon as possible. Keep this information where you can find it in a safe, convenient place. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your search coordinator. Don't be afraid to ask questions, make suggestions, or air differences of opinion.

Find out what types of searches are planned. Searches can be conducted in several ways:

  • A crime scene search of the areas where your child was last seen.

  • A door-to-door search.

  • A grid search.

  • A land, sea, or air search.

  • A roadblock search, which may involve stopping cars at the same time of day at the location where your child was last seen. Because people are creatures of habit and tend to take the same route each day, roadblock searches sometimes produce witnesses who saw your child, who observed someone hanging around the area, or who remember an out-of-place vehicle.

Ask your search coordinator what types of searches are being conducted, and make sure you feel comfortable that the search effort is adequate.

Records documenting which areas were searched, who was present, and what was found will be kept. Law enforcement will maintain a record showing what areas have been searched and by whom. A second search of critical areas for information and clues might be advisable, because something may have been overlooked during the initial search.

Tracking or trailing dogs, preferably bloodhounds, should be brought immediately to the scene where your child was last seen. The fresher the trail, the more likely the dogs will be able to find your child. Bloodhounds are your best bet, because they have 60 times the tracking power of German shepherds, can discriminate among scents, and can follow your child's scent in the air and on the ground. This means that they may be able to pick up your child's scent even if he or she was carried in someone's arms or in a vehicle.

Telephone Tips

  • If you do not already have one, buy a cellular phone or pager so you can be reached when you are away from home.

  • Ask law enforcement to install a trap and trace on your phone.

  • Install a phone with the ability to tape calls.

  • Ask your telephone company to install caller ID on your telephone line.

  • Keep a phone log, a pad of paper, or a spiral notebook next to the phone to record the date and time of phone calls, the name of the caller, and other information.

The Role of Volunteers in the Search

If volunteers are used in the search, your law enforcement agency should still be responsible for managing the overall search effort. The extent to which volunteers are used in the search will depend on whether additional personnel -- beyond the military -- are needed. A volunteer search coordinator may be needed to organize the volunteer search effort.

Try to recruit established organizations, agencies, or groups -- rather than individual volunteers -- in the search. The use of affiliated groups makes it possible to quickly gather and organize a large number of volunteers. It also provides an inner chain of command, which makes communication and training easier, and provides an internal screening mechanism.

When volunteers are used, request that the volunteer staging area be located away from your home. There will be enough traffic, chaos, and confusion at your home without the added burden of volunteer search teams.

All volunteer searchers should be required to sign in each time they participate in a search activity. The sign-in procedure can be as simple as asking the volunteer searchers to show their driver's licenses and to list in a log book their names, addresses, and organizational affiliations, such as the Boy Scouts, local labor union, place of business, or local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Keep all records for future reference.

A more elaborate sign-in procedure involves videotaping the sign-in and search efforts. Although it is impossible to videotape every search from start to finish, videotapes that show the searchers, the sign-in process, and the search locations can provide valuable information about possible clues and suspects. Some situations that seem innocent initially, such as the repeated appearance of an overly concerned searcher, may not be as innocent as they appear.

Request that law enforcement run background checks on persons volunteering for the search for prior criminal activity. In previous cases, thieves, pedophiles, and even the missing child's abductor have been known to join in a search. Background checks can prevent misguided people from volunteering and sometimes can provide information that helps law enforcement conduct the search.

Have your volunteer coordinator talk with law enforcement to determine whether additional equipment or personnel are needed to make the search quick and massive enough. Contact local businesses, missing children's organizations, NCMEC, your State missing children's clearinghouse, or other agencies to obtain the necessary supplies or tap into a network of people.

Further information about resources that can help with the search can be obtained by calling NCMEC. Established in 1984 as a private, nonprofit organization, NCMEC serves as a clearinghouse of information on missing and exploited children. It also provides technical assistance to both citizens and law enforcement agencies, distributes photographs and descriptions of missing children nationwide, and networks with nonprofit service providers and State clearinghouses on missing children. NCMEC can be contacted at its headquarters in Virginia or in one of its five branch offices in California, Florida, Kansas, New York, and South Carolina.

After the First 48 Hours: The Long-Term Search

When the search for a child becomes long term, not all parents can or will want to be actively involved in the search. It is okay if you choose not to be involved. But if you want to remain active in the long-term search effort, there are a number of things that you and other family members, friends, or volunteers can do to aid in the process.

Develop a plan and set a schedule with goals for continuing the search for your child. Work with law enforcement to figure out what role you and others can play in the long-term search. This Guide can help, especially chapters 3 (The Media) and 4 (Photo and Flier Distribution).

Schedule regular visits with your investigator. Set up a schedule for you and your investigator to review the status of the investigation and to give each other updates. However, if you have new, important information, make sure that you give it to law enforcement as soon as possible.

Ask to see your child's case file periodically. You may recognize something meaningful that was overlooked or remember something significant that law enforcement was not aware of. Be aware that there may be pieces of information that law enforcement cannot -- or does not want to -- release to you because it may jeopardize or hinder the investigation. This is okay. Some States do not allow the release of police reports until a case is closed. Ask your search coordinator what information can be legally released to you or what you are allowed to see.

Keep a spiral notebook with you to record your thoughts and review it periodically. When you reread your notebook or journal, you may find a passage that triggers a new idea or reminds you of something you had previously forgotten. Advise law enforcement about any new thoughts you have about the disappearance of your child.

Consider offering a reward for the safe return of your child. Chapter 6 contains specific information on the reward offer.

Find out what Crime Stoppers can do to help with the search. Crime Stoppers answers telephone calls 24 hours a day, knows how to take tip information, promises anonymity to callers, and maintains a good working relationship with law enforcement. If you like, ask to attend one of their meetings. If they agree, their telephone number may be a good choice for calls about a reward, because NCMEC will not provide reward information on its toll-free line.

Inquire about other programs that can be used for crime tips and rewards. Talk with your law enforcement agency and prosecutor's office to see if they know of other local, State, regional, or national programs that can be used to report crime tips or offer rewards.

Contact NCMEC, the State missing children's clearinghouses in the 50 States, and other missing children's organizations across the country. Ask for assistance with distribution of posters and fliers. Ask each agency what types of services it has available to assist with the search. Addresses and phone numbers for the missing children's clearinghouses in the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Canada are listed in the Additional Resources section of this Guide.

Keep community awareness of your plight at a high level. If your child has been missing for several years, ask NCMEC to develop an age-progressed picture, then place this picture next to the original picture on shirts, buttons, and posters. Chapter 4 contains sample fliers you can use as models for your own fliers. Also, if there is new information about your child -- such as a sighting or an interesting lead -- make sure that the public is kept informed. But before you disclose any information, be sure to consult with your law enforcement contact so the investigation is not compromised.

Keep the media interested and involved. Chapter 3 contains ideas for keeping the media interested in your story.

Make a list of things that others can do to help. As long as you have specific tasks for volunteers to perform, they won't go away.

Getting Help From Political Figures

The media often take special interest in publicizing cases in which political figures are involved. You can solicit help from school board members; city commissioners; your State Governor, senators, and representatives; and members of the U.S. House and Senate. You can also seek out those individuals who can get your child's poster displayed in the following public places:

  • On buses, on subways, and at transfer points.

  • In parks and other recreational facilities.

  • At tollbooths and rest areas.

  • In U.S. post offices.

  • In State and Federal buildings.1

Be wary, however, of attempts by well-meaning politicians to involve you in hastily written legislative proposals that could in the long run be detrimental to the plight of your child and others like him or her. Too often, legislative change comes about as a reaction to an incident, not as a well-planned, proactive response to a problem. Therefore, consider carefully the potential repercussions of any legislative proposal before you become involved.

1On January 19, 1996, President Clinton signed an Executive memorandum requiring Federal agencies to receive and post missing children fliers in their buildings. This program is coordinated by NCMEC.

The Role of Private Detectives and Psychics in the Long-Term Search

Private Detectives

If the immediate search is not successful, you may be tempted to try almost anything. Some parents turn to private detectives to aid in the search.

Consider hiring a private detective or investigator only if you are convinced that he or she can do something better or different than what is being done by law enforcement. Be certain that you are not simply wasting money that could be spent more productively in another way. If you decide to use a private detective, the following tips can help:

  • Always ask for and check references to find out if the investigator is legitimate.

  • Be wary of people who say they can bring your child back immediately for a specific sum of money. If you run into this situation, report it to law enforcement.

  • Make sure you are paying a reasonable rate. Insist that the investigator itemize expenses.

  • Make sure the detective has experience working with law enforcement. Law enforcement must be notified immediately of any leads you receive from a private investigator.

  • Inform your assigned law enforcement investigator about your decision to hire a private investigator. In most instances, this individual will need to talk to law enforcement before becoming involved in the case.


Keep an open mind -- and a closed pocketbook -- when considering the use of a psychic. Most parents are desperate to try anything, but they need to understand that there are very few true psychics. Many are fraudulent or, at best, misguided individuals who want to help so much that they have self-induced visions. Hearing their sometimes negative dreams and visions can cause undue stress, a loss of hope, or an unfounded sense of hope. If you are considering turning to a psychic, remember the following tips:

  • Ask someone close to the family to record any psychic leads, because the information is usually distressing. Give all such leads to law enforcement.

  • If any lead is highly specific, such as a particular address, insist that law enforcement check it out. Follow up with law enforcement to find out the value of the lead.

  • Never allow a psychic to go into your child's room unattended or to take items without making arrangements for their return.

Regardless of whether some psychics have true visions, any purportedly psychic dream may be an actual observation by someone who is afraid to get involved. That is why even psychic leads need to be checked out whenever possible.

Overzealous Individuals

Be prepared to encounter a few people who are fanatical or obsessive in their behavior or in their desire to help. Keep in mind that some people may try to use your loss to gain attention for themselves. Protect yourself from people who might be delusional or who may prey on victims through scams or by offering false hopes and expectations. The key is to keep your focus and exercise caution.

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OJJDP Report: When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, May 1998