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Understanding the True Scope of Missing Children Globally

At some point in our lives as parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or babysitters, we have, or will, experience that heart-stopping moment of panic when the child who was with us is suddenly not there. In the majority of these scary moments the child has simply wandered into the next room or toddled off to the toy section of the shop. But in the moments where the child is missing — abducted, run away, or lost — that singular moment of panic turns into agonizing hours, days or weeks of not knowing where the child is, whether she is safe, or if she will return.

The number of times this happens around the world each day is unknown. While some countries report “official” statistics on how many children are missing in their country, many others don’t track or report the number, and reporting is inconsistent. The truth is we have no reliable data on how many children are missing around the world. And because of this lack of data, insufficient resources are dedicated to the prevention of, and response to, children going missing.

It is long past time to rectify this. We need to understand the scope of this global issue so we can build our capacity to prevent, respond to, and safely recover every child who goes missing.

With this in mind, the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, in cooperation with the Program Evaluation and Research Lab at Boise State University, has launched the first-ever comprehensive global study of how many children are missing. This groundbreaking research will result in the first evidence-based number of missing children globally, and will allow us to track, in real time, how many children are missing on any given day globally or in a specific country.

We began the project by addressing the most fundamental barrier to understanding the scope of the problem of counting missing children: defining what it means to be missing. Our goal was to use a definition that will encompass all missing children and not just some missing children. For example, if a country does not include a missing migrant child among its definition of a missing child, then the number of children officially reported as missing in that country could be substantially lower than the actual number and the necessary resources to recover that child safely would not be deployed.

A missing child who is not counted is not protected and the longer they are missing, the more likely they are to come to harm including exploitation and trafficking.

We will overcome this obstacle by collecting data not just from “official,” national-level data but from a wide variety of other sources using our multifaceted definition of what it means to be missing.

Our goal is to make sure that the response by law enforcement, the public, and other key stakeholders to a child going missing is based not on the reason the child went missing but on the fact that she is missing. A child who has run away for the third time deserves no less urgent a response by law enforcement or the public than a child who has been abducted. The potential harm facing a child who has run away is no less than the potential harm facing a child who was abducted by a parent. Our concern should be only about the safety and the well-being of the missing child. It is time to reframe the conversation around missing children. This is not a law enforcement problem. It is a child protection issue.

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