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How to Investigate Lost Children

Knowing how kids of different ages behave can help you know where and how to look for them.

March 10, 2017  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Children ages 3 to 6 understand the concept of being lost and may attempt to return home or to a familiar place, but they tend to keep going in one direction. (Photo: iStockphoto.com)
Children ages 3 to 6 understand the concept of being lost and may attempt to return home or to a familiar place, but they tend to keep going in one direction. (Photo: iStockphoto.com)

There are basically five ways children go missing: abduction by a parent, kidnapping and ransom, runaway children, predator abduction, or unexplained disappearance. Until you figure out what you have, each investigation starts off with the premise that the child has gone missing by wandering off somewhere. This article will cover common aspects of a lost child in order to help an officer with the initial investigation.

First Things First

Check with dispatch for any call history and any useful patterns. Ask for backup early for your initial search and obtaining information. Notify your supervisor. Start thinking about the questions you need to ask. Consider that you might be heading into a crime scene. Limit access and establish a command post and an initial staging area, even if it's just located near your vehicle. Pay close attention while driving in case you spot the child or identify areas you want to search later.

Understanding Missing Children Behavior

Studies show that children behave alike when they get lost. Understanding some common behavior will help you get organized and establish priorities.

Children up to three years of age are unaware of the concept of being lost. They have little or no navigational skills. They don't have a sense of direction and tend to wander aimlessly. However, they tend to have good survival instincts and often seek shelter. They may lie down and go to sleep under thick brush, inside a log, or under a picnic table.

As children get older (ages 3 to 6), they begin to develop the concept of being lost and will attempt to return home or to a familiar place. They will follow tracks, trails, and short cuts not noticeable to adults. They may panic and become more lost as they don't understand the concept of turning around so they tend to keep going in one direction. They are more mobile and cover more distance than younger children. They may be drawn away by animals, older children, or exploration. When tired, they will look for a sleeping spot. They pay more attention to instructions to stay away from strangers so they may not respond or might hide when they see you coming.

Children between the ages of seven and 12 are more adventurous. They may have wandered up to five miles away even though their navigational and direction skills are more developed. They are more likely to try to find themselves (self-rescue), which can result in trail running. This characteristic can take them farther from their last known point. They become confused in strange environments.

If children have run away to gain attention or avoid punishment, they will sometimes not respond when called. Darkness may work in your favor as it usually brings on a willingness to accept help. Once this group realizes they are lost, they can become upset and confused. Much like adults, they can develop feelings of helplessness.

Boots on the Ground

Ask questions to establish a baseline. For example, ask if the child is afraid of the dark, how they respond to strangers, if they have been coached in what to do when lost, and what is the best way to get them to respond. Do they have any playmates, favorite play areas, or have they paid attention to anything that would draw them away? Other questions involve ruling out any outside influences that could be responsible for the child's disappearance. Is there an estranged parent? Is there a custody battle? Are there any jealous grandparents?

Get an updated description of the child to include what they were last wearing, their current health status, and anything useful to those who are looking. Put out that information over your radio ASAP.

The complainant is probably going to tell you they have searched everywhere. You need to acknowledge their efforts and then conduct your own search. I have cleared many a missing juvenile by finding them hiding in the same area the parents said they searched.

If you don't find the child in the area of the point last seen, you need to expand your search in a number of ways. You can conduct a crime scene search where the child was last seen, go door-to-door, or structure a grid search. In some cases, a roadblock search is warranted. Because people are creatures of habit and tend to take the same route each day, roadblock searches sometimes produce witnesses who saw the child, observed someone hanging around the area, or who remember an out-of-place vehicle.

As more units arrive, organization is critical. You need to assign specific areas for officers to search. They need to document every address and person they speak with. Assign a few roving patrols to go check specific roads, trails, parks, or other points of interest based on your interviews. If your initial search doesn't find the child, you may have to reach out for other resources.

At some point you may have to consider bringing in K-9 and aviation units. You may need additional volunteers. Don't discount the Civil Air Patrol, which has a built-in search and rescue function; civilian search and rescue organizations; and even police academy cadets. Think outside of the box when it comes to finding ways to expand your resources.

Winding Down

If you find the child, write a detailed report. It helps the next officer if the child goes missing again. If you made an arrest, be very specific as to why. If you observed any questionable living conditions, you may have to get other agencies involved. Realize that sometimes, the follow-up is more extensive than the original call.

If you didn't find the child, the search continues. As a first responder you have certain duties and limited resources at your disposal. At some point you will have to notify your version of a missing persons crime unit or an outside agency to take over.

How long you continue the search will depend in part on your geographic area and your chain of command. A search of a gated residential community just outside a city will be handled differently than a heavily wooded rural area with few homes. Make sure that when you are relieved, it's indicated in your report as to when, by whom, and how.

Additional Resources

Having knowledge of how lost persons behave is invaluable. The book "Lost Person Behavior: A Search and Rescue Guide on Where to Look – for Land, Air and Water" by Robert J. Koester is a great reference.

In 2015, The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate First Responders Group released a mobile app that provides step-by-step instructions on search plans for first responders and response teams. It provides search guidance, protocols, and strategies used by search and rescue teams around the nation. The Lost Person Behavior mobile app is available to download (for a fee) from Apple iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon.com. At the time of this writing, it was last updated in January of 2016.

Reading up on case studies, methods, and procedures found on the internet will also help. Having knowledge of the area you work in is also a must. I have found more than my fair share of missing children fast asleep in parks, culverts, or playhouses that I knew were nearby. My best advice is to get organized as quickly as possible because wasting time is never a good thing when dealing with missing children.

Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.


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