One day not too long ago, I was reading about some kids who had been missing since the mid-1990s. I started wondering what happens during the ensuing investigations. I wanted to know what happens after their faces are posted on the boards past Wal-Mart checkouts.
Starting to work on this story, I felt it was obvious that I needed to contact the police station in my jurisdiction. After hearing nothing from them for two days, I finally got an email telling me to email the Ontario Provincial Police. I immediately did so, just to get a response telling me to email the police station in my jurisdiction. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had actually had a missing child, if receiving help would be this difficult.
Many people work together to bring missing children back home safely through many different means. The first of these measures is the AMBER alert system that is implemented by the OPP. This communication system utilizes all forms of media, from highway signs to television, to inform the public of a missing child. There are certain criteria that must be met in order for an alert to go through to the media: the child must be under 18; the authorities must believe that the child is in danger; a description of the child, abductor, and/or vehicle involved must be provided; and they must believe the public can assist in the search.
However, the alert may not be issued if the child is a runaway or abducted by a parent, unless there is reason to believe that the child is in danger. After the alert is first broadcast, it will remain in circulation for five hours or until the child is returned home. The OPP, who were unavailable for comment, have a web page dedicated to the system that reads: “AMBER Alert sends a strong message that crimes against children are intolerable and may act as a deterrent to potential kidnappers.”
After researching the system, I decided to try a different approach to find information. There is one program working hard to help out the police and the community while still educating the public about missing children. Child Find, a nationwide, not-for-profit program, has headquarters in almost every province, excluding Quebec and the Territories. After getting in touch with John Durant, the director of Child Find Ontario, he was more than happy to quickly set up a time to chat. He explains the organization’s mission simply.
“What the Child Find mission here is to reduce the incidents of missing and exploited children,” says Durant. “Primarily, our job is to work with parents and law enforcement agencies to help locate a missing child.”
In 2005, more than 66,500 children globally went missing. This number had fallen to just over 50,000, which shows the precautions are working but more can always be done. Many of these cases are not highly publicized and fly under the radar after the AMBER alert has worn off. But the search doesn’t end there – just the coverage. In some very rare cases, like that of Victoria Stafford, the media covers the case almost daily and even the tiniest developments warrant a full-blown news report.
Durant, who has been working with the program since 1998, says they jump into action as soon as a parent or legal guardian calls to inform them their child is missing. The parent or guardian is sent a registration package to fill out with all the vital information and are asked to provide a picture. They also call some of their partners, like Scotia Bank, who put pictures of the missing child on envelopes used for bank statements. These circulate to thousands of people in the area. They also use their Truck Poster program. Child Find prints posters that can be stuck to the back of a truck and easily peeled off if the child is found. Drivers can order these adhesive pictures through the website for $10. They hope that more people will see it, generating more tips to help bring the child home.
Child Find uses a 24-hour phone hotline where community members can call in any tips or sightings. Hotline volunteers forward this information to the case officer. This hotline is available nationally so if someone spots the child anywhere in the country, there are still ways for people there to help bring them back.
While the organization doesn’t help with the physical investigation, they do provide services for the parents of missing children. Volunteers work with parents to get them the help and support they need.
“We don’t provide counseling, we provide a referral service,” says Durant. “If they need legal assistance or if they need counseling, we will look in their area to find out what’s available and we will hook them up together and provide them with that kind of assistance.”
But Child Find goes a step farther than just gathering tips; they provide the public with information and services to help prevent child abduction.
“The one that everyone likes is our Kid Check fingerprinting program,” says Durant, “We provide parents free of charge with an ID booklet and we ask them to put a picture on the cover.”
If completed at a Child Find event, the booklet even features a footprint if the child is under one-year old, a handprint for one to five year olds or the fingerprints of those older than five.
There is a section that must be kept up-to-date with information about hair and eye color, height and weight. This booklet becomes vital if the child goes missing, as it provides the authorities with a place to begin their investigation.
“If a child goes missing, these are the types of information that [parents] forget at the time,” Durant says of a child’s physical description.
Another one of the more effective bits of information, which can be found at www.ontario.childfind.ca, are the lists of safety tips for children and parents. The tips are tailored towards specific age groups: preschoolers, grade schools, teenagers and parents. The tips are meant to help the child understand what is and isn’t appropriate behavior from adults and what to do in circumstances where they may be in danger of abduction. There are also safety tips for Internet users and for situations when a family is away from home.
“We ask parents to sit down with their children and go over these rules,” Durant explains, “not to scare them, [but] just to make them aware and provide them with the tools so if they come into a situation… they know how to deal with the situation.”
Durant, who began as a trainer for volunteers, says that there aren’t too many new programs coming into affect. Instead, Child Find is looking for ways to fund itself through donations and providing services that the community needs. However, they are working with The Canadian Center for Child Protection to run the Cyber Tip Line, a program much like their normal hotline but based on the Internet. This tip line allows the public to call in or submit through an online form anything they find on the Internet that they feel may be exploiting children. After the tip has been reviewed, it is either disregarded or forwarded to the proper authorities. Exploiting children can include anything from pornography to prostitution. Not just a national program, this tip line also helps protect children around the world. If someone across the globe sees something that harms children, they have the opportunity to report it online, and it will be taken care of from there.
I still don’t know what happened to the children whose pictures I see as I walk through Wal-Mart. But now I know how I can help bring them home.