View Full Version : How are missing children's cases handled?

Callista Melaney
10-06-2012, 12:53 PM
Looking for people with more knowledge in this arena:

My current WIP involves a 17 year old girl who disappears after a party. I'll admit that I watch a lot of Law and Order:SVU, so I've been relying on things I've seen on the show for inspiration (but I also understand that as a TV show it is probably far from accurate). It's been difficult to google for realistic info because 99.9% of the results are about specific, high-profile missing children's cases instead of general information about how they're handled. At this point, though, I've learned that the myth about how a child has to be missing for 24 hours before being officially declared "missing" just that--a myth, that the cases are supposed to be a priority once reported...aaaand that's about it!

My main concern is to separate the drama from the actual truth. On the show, the detectives seem to be doing a lot of the work with taking statements, investigating out in the field, and are working closely with the families. Is this realistic? Also, on the show they make a distinction between detectives and police officers and the tasks they perform. I've provided a witness statement for a convenience store robbery, and have also been around when my friends called the police about a burglary, and (although nothing close to a missing child case) have never seen a detective.

I'll reiterate that the WIP involves a missing child, but the actual legal part plays a comparatively small role. I'm not planning on being comprehensive, but I would like to represent that part as accurately as possible. Thanks in advance to anyone who can help!

10-06-2012, 03:22 PM
From the police point of view:

A 17 year old girl not coming home from a party on time is not going to be a major investigation right away. Unless there are some additional causes for concern, the mere fact that the parents are calling that she hasn't returned when she was supposed to is not going to get an all points bulletin.

The scenario I see from what you have provided is (or should at the minimum be). Patrol officer comes to house, hears the story and takes down information. He also checks the missing's room for any signs of her running away, and looks for address book or notebooks that may contain clues to where she would rather be and who are her friends. Officer then goes to the place the party was held and sees what he can find (Who saw her last, what she was wearing, what was her mental state, interview people she talked to). Of course if the party is over, this may be a dead end. Baring some startling information he goes to the station and starts calling all of her friends. Hopefully she has confided in one of them where she went. (Notice this is slanted to assume she's irresponisible or ran away?) If all of that draws no more additional information (like she's been kidnapped?) then the officer completes his report, enters her into the national database, and tells her parents to call if she returns home.

Just so you know, at 17 she is considered an adult in my state (Illinois) and some of the juvenile statutes do not apply to her. She can still be entered as missing.

It is likely that after her not coming home that morning, that an additional effort would be made to locate her. Probably a detective would be assigned. I can go into that process more if you want.

Just a note for your plot/story: Most cell phones can be tracked now adays but you need to certify that there is an exigent reason to track them before a cell phone company will do it.

Hope this helps,


10-06-2012, 04:27 PM
Just to echo what John said - a 17 year old disappearing is not going to be treated in the same way as a 5 year old disappearing.

And the sad truth of the matter is that, in the UK alone, over 100,000 children go missing every year. The vast majority of these are teens. But the attention that is paid to them is virtually non-existant.

10-06-2012, 04:42 PM
Repeat John's answer here, with especial emphasis on whether a 17-year-old is treated as a adult. But missing person cases are highly individual, with what people think happened a major factor in the level of response. And the more innocent the child appears, the higher the level of response.

One thing to note on cell phones and credit cards of minors. For an adult, the police need a search warrant to investigate either. However, for a minor, the parent is frequently the actual owner of the cell phone and credit cards, resulting in the police just needing approval from the parent to investigate.

Many parents use the tracking features of some of the smart phones as a way of keeping track of their kids, who aren't always as swift as you'd think they are. If that signal disappears, this can be a major cause of concern for the police. Of course, it could also mean junior has figured this out and doesn't want to be interrupted at the No-Tell Motel as he or she explores his or her sexual identity.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

10-06-2012, 10:47 PM
In the case of a missing child, 12 and under, our department goes full out. Over that age depends on circumstances. Often there is a full push if it's a suspected abduction, normally requiring a witness, or if there is something special about the child, disabled, mental issues, potential family violence or threats, etc.

A 17 year old girl not showing up by curfew is a non-issue for us. Without a specific reason to believe otherwise, almost every case like this is a girl sneaking off with a boy or headed to a party with friends, or just plain up to no good. Not having been seen for two days is another matter.


Callista Melaney
10-07-2012, 04:33 AM
Thank you everyone! I think I actually have more information than I need now, hehe. I really appreciate the insight. Cookies for all! :)