With just a week before International Missing Children’s Day, we wanted to share an extract from Erin Stewart’s book; The Missing Among Us: Stories of missing persons and those left behind. Erin Stewart speaks to parents of missing children, former cult members, detectives and investigators, advocates working on the crisis of missing refugees. You’ll find a 2,000 word extract of Erin’s compelling and intriguing work below.

To buy a copy of this book, please see the links below:

The Missing Amongst Us – a 2,000 word extract

I met Charlie Hedges, an expert on missing persons who has spent nearly 40 years working in policing and is now self-employed as a consultant. He develops prevention strategies and systems to find missing persons quickly and effectively, and he also offers training and advice for agencies on missing- persons cases.

Charlie says, good guesses are nothing compared to the minutiae of gathering evidence, cataloguing, and recording anything that might be of significance, and following possibilities that might not go anywhere. 

My questions about instincts remind Charlie of a case he advised on, when a four-year-old girl went missing. She’d been outside playing with her friend one afternoon when she disappeared. Her friend found her mother and told her a vague story about a man in a van. The police were contacted immediately. The investigating officer called Charlie for advice. He remembers picking up the phone, listening and the feeling of his stomach lurching. ‘All they had was this uncorroborated information from a five-year-old child. Something happened, and she hadn’t turned up at home. A bit concerning, but not that long a time had elapsed.’ Plenty of children are found safely at this point in an investigation. Charlie reiterated reassuring thoughts. As he said these words, they felt wrong. ‘This is going to be big,’ he told the investigator. ‘I just knew.’ Even when confronted with the case and the feeling that it was going to be serious, he turned to the rational. It did end up being big. 

 

We talk about some of the procedures; the first important step is cultivating empathy with those left behind. This seems like a subjective process rather than a scientific one but can help to bring about better results. At the workshops Charlie facilitates, he gets participants to imagine a time where someone they loved wasn’t where they were expected to be. ‘You get them to think about how they would feel in those situations to try and get people to understand just what it’s like to experience that sort of loss.’ But families and friends of missing persons need to feel empathy from police. For them, being able to access information about how the case is proceeding and knowing the case is a priority can mitigate some of the anxiety of ambiguous loss. Additionally, understanding the family’s concerns and listening to their insights about the missing person can help solve the case.

Charlie has a story about a time when empathy failed. He fronted an investigation to find a 19-year-old man missing in the Milton Keynes area. Joseph had travelled from Wales to go to a rave with some friends. After their weekend, the friends arrived home, but Joseph didn’t. Charlie characterises the investigation as ‘a complete disaster’. It started with a dispute between local police in Milton Keynes and police in Wales about who should be in charge. The search was not thorough. Few investigators took the case very seriously, thinking that Joseph was probably just a lad on a post-rave adventure. Joseph’s mother thought the theories sounded unlikely and out of character. After some arguments, the case was eventually escalated. They found Joseph’s body in a stretch of water that had already been searched, but so inadequately that he hadn’t been discovered. His mother’s stress could’ve been alleviated had the authorities listened to her. She revealed important information about her son’s character that could have been used to escalate the case and, if not find him alive, at least find his body earlier. The mismanagement of missing-persons cases was what attracted Charlie to this area of policing. After the discovery of Joseph’s death, he wrote up a report about what had gone wrong and how improvements could be made. But over and over, the same mistakes kept happening.

 

One day, he knocked on the door of his commander’s office and asked, ‘Why did I waste my time?’. But instead of offering sympathy, he said, ‘If you want to actually make anything different, you have to do it yourself.’ An effective police officer takes initiative. ‘And I’ve been at it ever since’ Charlie says. His early notes have snowballed into reports on best practice for police procedure when dealing with missing-persons cases, national policy and strategy documents advising the UK Home Office, and the fostering of international cooperation with investigations. Procedures don’t erase the ambiguities involved in a case, but they are designed to give the families and friends of missing persons some answers that are grounded in reality. 

The next step in investigating a missing-persons case is to decide the likelihood that they are in danger, or that their disappearance may cause danger for others. It’s reassuring that in the UK, 80% of missing persons are either found or return by themselves within 24 hours. 96% of people who go missing do not come to harm. The trouble is trying to figure out which cases do require attention. After all, the 4% of cases where someone does come to harm still amounts to over 7000 people a year in the UK alone. The job of investigators is complicated by the fact that family members may have their own opinions about the seriousness of a case which may not be in line with police calculations. There’s a balance required for an effective investigation. 

In one case, police assumed that a young man had taken his own life because they had found an old dictaphone with a suicide note on it, even though voice specialists confirmed that the recording was made years earlier. The parents doubted the suicide theory and instead pointed to his recent interest in an underground bunker that was near some cliffs close to their house. Frustratingly, the police kept to their suicide hypothesis without exploring the bunker. Last checked, the young man’s parents had been asking police to excavate the bunker for three years.

In contrast, Charlie recounts a case where the father of a missing 15-year-old girl, Rita, was less active in searching for her than Charlie felt was appropriate. Rita, who was living with her fathe, had left for school and got on a bus and vanished. He resolved to move on, to get over it. But Charlie thinks that his main concern was being seen as not in control of his own family. So, there would be no search, no media to draw attention to his failure. Charlie disagreed with the father. He said, ‘I’m so concerned for your daughter that I’m going to ignore your wish’. Charlie had an article put in a teen magazine. Within a week he’d received a phone call from her. She was okay. 

 

Charlie’s concern was sensible given the dangers faced by young people who run away or are thrown out of home. In the UK, 11 per cent of young runaways said they’d been harmed while away; 18 per cent had either slept rough or risked staying with someone they had only just met; 9 per cent said that they had begged for money or food. There is also the risk of sexual violence. Sometimes children run away to escape abuse; sometimes they’re abused while they’re away from home. Investigators don’t know if the person they’re looking for is at risk, but factors like age are clues they use to assess potential dangers. Sometimes profiling is helpful; sometimes not. Sometimes listening to those left behind is useful; sometimes their suggestions are red herrings. Another helpful step in the process is to figure out why the person went missing. ‘People get very task-oriented thinking about, “We’ve got to find this person, and then we get them back, it’s job done.” Whereas actually you do need to give a significant amount of thought as to why they’ve gone missing. Because that “why” might tell you where they’ve gone.’ There are many reasons why a person might go missing. While there may be factors that have made them feel as though they have limited choice, their decision to go missing is made consciously. Choosing to go missing may be a right, but police will intervene if there’s reason to believe that the person will come to harm. Then there are those who ‘drift’ away. This includes people with dementia or mental illness who may have wandered and are either unable to find their way back or don’t realise they’re missing. Drifters also include people who have simply lost contact with friends, or moved without telling anyone, but aren’t purposely trying to hide their whereabouts. Then, there are people whose disappearances are forced. Who’ve been abducted, or murdered, or are victims of a crime, or injured in some way, and can’t be located. Police have to look at the situation the person was in before they disappeared. Police may also look at personal items, however, just because these things can be searched, it doesn’t always mean that they should be. ‘That has to be proportionate to the circumstances and lawful in its purpose as well. You can’t be intrusive just because you want to be. It has to be justified,’ Charlie says. There’s a balance between throwing a team into an investigation and protecting a missing person’s privacy. What’s known about why the person went missing should determine where the balance lies. 

 

What people do when missing is idiosyncratic but according to an analysis of missing-persons reports, there are some correlations between the different groups and particular behaviours. Once you have a picture of the missing person – some idea of who they are and some working theories on why they have gone missing – you can then consider possible locations to search. Investigators want to limit the parameters to places the person is most likely to be. Locations are ruled in or out so that the search area doesn’t seem frighteningly big. With each passing hour, it expands as the possibilities increase. For this reason, and contrary to the popular belief that you shouldn’t call the police until someone has been missing for over 24 hours, it’s very important that family and friends of missing persons make a report as soon as they begin to worry. If the person has been sighted, or if investigators can access phone records that roughly point to the person’s whereabouts, or access data from a travel card or credit card, they may be able to pinpoint where to begin the search. Profiling the missing person can also bring helpful clues as to their possible whereabouts. For instance, children aged between one and four are likely to be found within 26 minutes and 750 metres of the place where they were last sighted. So, it may be prudent for investigators to frame their search with this in mind. 

 

An investigator also has to be aware that a small number of people will not want to be found. People have a right to leave the familiar and never come back. In these situations, the police become protectors of the secret of the person’s location. All they can say is the person is okay, but they don’t want to talk or for any more information to be shared. A struggle is that finding people isn’t always a solution; it doesn’t mark the end of the problems that may have caused the person to go missing in the first place. If these issues are not addressed once the person has returned, then the biggest drivers of the case remain. Going missing should be seen as a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Charlie argues that missing-persons cases take up a relatively larger degree of police time and resources. In the UK alone, around 1000 missing-persons reports are filed each day. Missing- persons cases are also the most expensive area of UK policing in absolute terms. In total, over £700 million per year is spent on the specialised services. Despite the number of missing-persons cases, they aren’t always seen as priorities. With the exception of criminal abductions, missing persons aren’t widely seen as a serious issue.