What to do when a child goes missing

It’s important that you know what to do the moment you realise a child is missing. It could save a life. 

23 June 2016
4 minute read

little boy in woods alone

Most parents have felt that gut-wrenching sensation of realising they’ve lost sight of their child. Fortunately, in most cases, the child has just drifted behind a magazine rack or another person, and reappears when you call their name. Unfortunately, according to The Missing Person’s Bureau, a child goes missing every five hours in South Africa – which means that it’s vital that parents know what to do as soon as they are aware that their little one is gone.

What to do immediatelyIf you are in a public space like a shopping centre, alert security and management as quickly as possible. If your child has only just gone missing, it might be possible to seal off exits to the store you are in or to the entire shopping centre.

If you are somewhere with a public address system, ask for an announcement to be made, detailing your child’s name, what they look like and what they are wearing.

Call the policeThere is unfortunately a misconception that a person has to be missing for 24 hours before you can call the police. This is simply not true, and can mean that the police lose valuable time during which they could be questioning witnesses and searching for the missing person. For this reason, call the police as soon as you realise that a child is missing.

If there is no reason to call the police to the place where the child went missing, you should make a report at your nearest police station. The SAPS advise that you will need to do the following:

  • Produce a recent photograph of the missing person, if possible.
  • Give a complete description of the missing person’s last whereabouts, clothes that they were wearing, as well as any other information that can assist the investigating officer.
  • Complete and sign a SAPS 55(A) form. This form safeguards the SAPS from hoax reports and indemnifies the SAPS to distribute the photograph and information of the missing person.
  • Obtain the investigating officer’s contact details, and send any additional information that might become available.
  • If a missing person is found or returns voluntarily, inform the investigating officer immediately. A SAPS 92 form must be completed to inform the Bureau of Missing Persons that the missing person’s report can be removed from the circulation system.

Use social mediaFacebook and Twitter are extremely useful for making the public aware of missing children. You can post a photo, age and identifying information and contact details on your own social media profiles, and also get in touch with Missing Children South Africa who will circulate the information to their networks as well.

They state that it is important that you report the missing child to the police first, and then fill out their online form – or call them – to give them all the information that they need. They say that they get many responses and tip-offs from the public so don’t neglect this important channel.

Prevention is better than responseOf course, while it is important to be aware of what to do if a child goes missing, it is better to prevent this from happening in the first place. Here are some tips for ensuring child safety:

  • Don’t be concerned about frightening your children by telling them what might happen. It’s important that they understand the very real risks out there. You are not protecting them by keeping them in the dark.
  • Teach your children never to go anywhere with strangers. Think of all the situations in which your child might be approached by someone, and teach them how to respond. For example, remember to explain that even if a stranger says he wants to show your child a puppy, or needs help with something, they should always speak to a teacher or other figure or authority first.
  • Also teach your child that not all strangers are bad. If they are lost or scared, tell them to approach security guards, people in uniform, people at information desks or tills or mothers with children.
  • Teach your child that they should make a fuss if anything feels wrong. If someone is following them, they should ask for help in the nearest shop or home. If someone tries to drag them away, they should fight and scream as loudly as possible.
  • Have a “safe word”. If for some reason you have to send someone else to fetch your child from school – even if that person is known to your child – tell them a secret code word that only you and your child know.
  • As soon as your child is old enough to remember, teach them your phone number. If you are taking a young child out to a where there will be lots of people, write your number on their arm in permanent marker.
  • Have specific rules for your set of circumstances. Your child might be allowed to walk down the road to visit a neighbour – but make sure you always know where they are if this is the case. Think of all the places your child might go, or things that they might do and have a conversation about how to stay safe in all those situations.

Stay safeAccording to Missing Children South Africa, 77% of children reported missing in this country get found. By following the guidelines we’ve listed, you will improve your chances of finding a missing child as quickly as possible – or, even better, of preventing them from going missing in the first place. Your children are your greatest priority – do what you can to ensure their safety.

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