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Missing children's stories: The pull between private and public


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Agencies working to find missing children face many challenges, but one not often discussed is how to tell their stories.

When a child goes missing, making the information public is critical for the search.

But when a child is found, much is done to keep the story quiet, leaving agencies that rely on donations and public support without the ability to trumpet their work.

"It is challenging and difficult to be in the position every day to protect children ... and as soon as we are able to do that we want to be able to tell people what we did," says Amanda Pick, CEO of Missing Children Society of Canada (MCSC).

However, even though finding a missing child is a triumph it doesn't mean the crisis is over, Pick says. The trauma continues for children who still need protection and that includes keeping them safe from public scrutiny.

Agencies such as MCSC won't expose a child in crisis to any chance of reliving a trauma by being asked to recount the story in public, Pick says. With easy access to information online and the prevalence of onine gossip and sharing, these days it's impossible to tell any version of a story hoping to keep anyone anonymous.

"It's difficult to tell a story that won't be connected to that case," Pick says. "So unless the family is in a position to tell that story, we're not going to do that."

Unfortunately, a spreadsheet full of numbers showing positive results can never replace one impactful family story. What to do about that remains the conundrum when trying to shout about success, she says. "I still don't know the answer to that."

And while trying to protect victimized children is one challenge, the other is to engage a desensitized public, unwilling to see that missing children are always at risk, regardless of their age and how they came to their situation, says Robert Lowery Jr.

This is especially the case for teenagers who run away from home, says Lowery, VP of the U.S.-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), Missing Children Division.

Some will leave because they are abused, others face mental health challenges or others might leave because they are fighting with parents. Regardless, in the world of missing children, the numbers of these at-risk youth make up the majority of cases. 

Lowery says unfortunately, it's harder to get the public's attention when an older child disappears, but these missing children are all at great risk.

For NCMEC, the circumstance behind a child's disappearance isn't relevant, Lowery adds. "A missing child to us is a missing child."

Getting the faces and stories in front of the public is still one of the most important tools any agency has in a search for a missing child, Lowery says. "Those tips from the public are the real game changer."

And while a case file is removed when a missing child is located, NCMEC and MCSC still have thousands of unsolved cases of missing children listed on their websites. They are open to the public and each one includes contact information for law enforcement working with them to find that child.

Search the Missing Children's Society of Canada database 

Search cases on Quebec-based Réseau Enfants-Retour

Search the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children database

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