By Kelly Goede
Statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) show that over 465,000 entries were made into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in 2016 — each entry a report about a missing child. Although a vast majority of those cases resulted in a child being found safe, many parents still experience the terror of having their child go missing, even for a short period of time. That panic is paralyzing and something that no parent or child should ever experience. As with so many arenas of parenting, planning can solve many problems before they even happen.
Before you go
Planning for a family outing might warrant matching outfits for the children, making them easily identifiable. Bright colors will also make spotting children easier in a crowd. Snapping a photo of each of your children upon entering a theme park or other large venue will assist in the event of the unimaginable. Identify a meeting place (such as an easily identifiable landmark) and a time to meet in case the group becomes separated, and be sure that your children know your cellphone number. “Even at an early age of 5, [children] can retain their parent’s phone number,” said PJ Mauldin, school resource deputy at Wiles Elementary School. If you are going into a theme park or other large venue for an extended period of time, you can always use a sharpie marker to write your phone number on their forearm. If you really plan ahead, you can have an ID bracelet made with all of your contact information permanently etched.
What to teach your children
The old philosophy of “stranger danger” needs to be updated. While your child should avoid talking to strangers, they need to know how to find a “good stranger” to ask for help if they get lost. “Good strangers” include front desk clerks, policemen, firemen, people wearing name badges or even mothers with strollers. Advise children to not go looking for you if they get lost — instead, find that “good stranger.” Some children are prone to wander, whether through genuine curiosity or due to conditions that predispose them to it. In those cases, a wearable GPS device may be a valuable tool, as it tracks the movements of your child, allowing you to locate them using your smartphone. At home, have children check in at regular intervals if they are playing outside. Deputy Mauldin also encourages parents to teach their children to dial 911 in case of an emergency.
What you should do
Of course children do not always adhere to our code of conduct and either wander off or forget where they are supposed to be. When or if that happens, it is time to spring into action as every minute counts when you are trying to locate your child. “If you realize your child is missing, you should not wait for an extended period of time,” said Deputy Mauldin. “Do, however, take a couple of deep breaths as you cannot help your child if you cannot think straight.” Once you compose yourself, you can begin to contact people who may help: law enforcement, school, neighbors, your child’s friends and online tools.
Be prepared to share information such as your child’s name, date of birth, height, weight and any unique identifiers (glasses, braces, scars) with law enforcement. Be sure to provide them with a detailed description of what your child was wearing and let them know at what time you first noticed your child was missing. After reporting your child missing to law enforcement, call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). If your child is missing from home, NCMEC advises you to search any spaces throughout the house where your child may hide, such as under beds, in closets, inside large appliances (like washing machines) and vehicles.
In Florida, we also live near bodies of water and swimming pools, warranting a search in any nearby. And if the details of your child’s disappearance involve a suspected abduction, law enforcement will advise you if your child’s circumstances meet the criteria for an Amber Alert, which is reserved for the most serious cases where a child is at risk of bodily harm or death.
Although kids will be kids, we as parents can arm them with information to use in the event that they become separated from us. Even practicing a scenario with your child will help them to remain calm if they become truly lost. “The best thing you can do for your children is talk to them!” said Deputy Mauldin. “Many parents are afraid to talk to their children and teach them that bad stuff can happen. We need to prepare them for both the good and the bad!”
Never label a child’s backpack or lunch box with their full name. This will prevent strangers from reading it and calling their name as if they know them.
Make sure your child’s cellphone is fully charged when they leave the house and that you program it with all necessary phone numbers, including close friends, adults they trust and family that can help if they are needed.
Take advantage of opportunities to get your child’s fingerprints and DNA taken when available. Keep them stored in a safe place so that they are easily accessible if they ever are needed.
Assign adults to watch specific children when you are on an outing. Do not assume that your partner is watching when he or she assumes you are.
Plan ahead with worst-case scenarios with your children. Talk through situations to instruct them on how they should respond and how they should find help.
Keep a list of your child’s friends’ contact information so you can contact them in the event that he or she goes missing to see if they have any information.