How Missing Persons Investigations Work

This diagram is a visualisation of the process of reporting, searching for, and finding a missing person. For explanation of each element, see the collapsible fields below.

Click through for higher res image

Making a Report

A missing persons case is opened when a person is reported missing to police. You DO NOT have to wait 24 hours to make a report. Individuals may be reported missing by family members or friends, or staff at an institution such as a school or care facility.

Problems with making a report?

Sometimes people may not be certain if someone is missing or may be reluctant to report them as missing (for instance, if they think the person may be engaging in criminal activity). In such situations, you may be able to seek advice from a missing persons organisation or hotline in your country or state.

Information gathering

As part of the report, questions such as the following may be asked: – Personal details of the missing person – name, date of birth, address, employment situation, etc. – When and where was the person last seen? – Does the person have any particular vulnerabilities? E.g. Do they require regular medication or care? Are they able to look after themselves? – What state of mind was the person in when they were last seen? E.g. Did they seem depressed? Were they intoxicated? Have they been behaving uncharacteristically? – What were they wearing when they were last seen? Do they have any identifying features?

Risk Assessment

Police categorise cases as low, medium, or high risk. Low risk means that there’s no evidence that the person has/will come to harm, or that they have/will harm others. Medium risk means that the missing person is at risk of coming to harm, or may harm themselves or others. High risk means that there is strong evidence to suggest the person/others are in danger. The missing person may be particularly vulnerable (such as if they’re a child, have a disability, or seems to be in a vulnerable mental state).

Immediate Search

The extent of the search effort will depend on how risky the case is deemed to be. Immediate searches will tend to involve searching the missing person’s home and immediate surrounds as well as checking with local hospitals to see if the person has been admitted there. The missing person’s friends acquaintances, colleagues, and others who may have seen them recently could be contacted.

Searches may be carried out by police and volunteers, but in many cases the missing person’s friends and family will take on the bulk of the effort.

It’s important to start searching as early as possible to limit the number of places the missing person could be.

Addressing the missing persons affairs

Families and friends of missing persons may need to disclose that the person is missing employers or schools. They may need to take care of pets, collect mail, pay bills, etc.

Escalated search

After initial efforts, searchers may broaden their efforts to find the missing person.

Making missing persons posters

Physical searches

Door knocking, searching specific sites on foot or by car, searching with drones, visiting homeless shelters, visiting the missing persons habitual places (cafes, shops), making reenactments.

Contacting agencies which may have information

Such as: embassies, airlines, churches, food banks, health boards, neighbouring police forces, banks…

Specialised resources

In some cases, searching resources such as dog squads, helicopters, and dredging equipment may be used.

Contacting non-police searching agencies

Such as: specialised charities, tracing services, private investigators…

Searching the person’s possessions

Police may seize personal computers, phones, diaries, etc. if the invasion of privacy is a reasonable course of action.

Finding special expertise

Such as: technical reports on currents or geographic features of specific places, private investigators, specialist maps.

Social media outreach

Creating a page on Facebook or making other social media accounts to disseminate information about the case to large numbers of people.

Media coverage

Getting details of the case in the news.

Managing the public

Sometimes public awareness of a missing persons case can have some damaging side effects such as false sightings and hoaxes. However, the public can provide very valuable information.

If the person is found…

It is important for this information to be delievered to anyone involved in the investigation or who might be worried about the case.

Most people are found within 24 hours, and the vast majority within a week.

Following up

Some previously missing people may benefit from services and resources that can address the causes of their going missing such as counselling, medical services, housing services, occupational therapies, etc.

Return interviews

Some police forces, organisations, and social agencies conduct return interviews with people who have been missing. Interviews can be an important way to understand why someone went missing and collect valuable data about missing persons.

If the person is not found…

What is appropriate to do in such a situation depends on the nature of the case, how long a person has been missing for, and the needs of the family members and friends. The following are some options, though the list is non-exhaustive:

  • Authorities may reassess the risk of the case.
  • The search may be expanded further.
  • Families and friends may look for support such as counselling or social groups for those affected by long-term missing and ambiguous loss.
  • Families may need to sort the affairs of the missing person such as cancelling accounts, and seeking power of attorney.
  • Families may seek a Coronial Inquest to determine the likelihood of death and, if appropriate, receive a death certificate.

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My sources for this post were:
Hedges, C. 2002. Missing You Already: A guide to the investigation of missing persons. The UK Home Office.

Missing Persons Advocacy Network. Missing Persons Guide.

Parr, H. & Stevenson, O. 2013. Families living with absence: Searching for missing people. Glasgow, The University of Glasgow.

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