Most of us are aware of our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But for most American’s there is a lesser-known right . . . the right to go missing.
As of April 30, 2018, there were 86,927 active missing person cases in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Of that number 14,411 are listed as endangered by authorities.
While most cases will resolve quickly, others date back decades.
“If you, as an adult, want to take off and need some time alone, you’re entitled to do that,” according to St. Cloud Police Assistant Chief Jeff Oxton. “That’s the right to go missing and can generate legitimate and sometimes illegitimate concerns from others.”
At the age of 18, going missing is not considered an offense. Unless the adult has been found to have significant issues with mental health, or if they are legally under the care of another person, it is not a crime to go missing and most resolve without incident.
“Most missing persons, we find them OK,” said Oxton. “We find there’s been a misunderstanding, or there was another reason they weren’t where they were supposed to be.”
However, that doesn’t always mean that all missing person cases are resolved with expediency.
Police in Scottsdale, Ariz., are searching for missing Marine veteran Jesse Conger who vanished without a trace on August 14, 2019. Loved ones fear he may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. Conger had served for 10 years and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during his military service.
Authorities say Conger was last seen at his apartment in Scottsdale by his girlfriend Natasha Harwell and may be driving a 2015 Toyota Camry with Nevada license plate number 696G03.
“I asked him to get help. He kept telling me, ‘No.’ but I feel like I should have insisted a little bit more,” Harwell said.
When Conger did not come home and never answered her calls or texts, she reported him missing. She noticed his gun was missing but all other personal belongings left at his home, including his wallet with identification, debit card, credit card, and all necessities. His service dog was also left behind.
“I feel like all the times before when he has done this, it was more like—you could know something was about to happen. He would talk to me about it, I could talk to him. This time he just picked up and left,” said Harwell.
The search has gone viral after a tweet from Pulte Group CEO Bill Pulte offered a $30,000 reward to help find Conger.
“I don’t know if I would be alive without my twin brother,” Patricia Conger said. “He’s always been with me. I want you to come home Jesse, please come home and I love you.”
Scottsdale Police Department is treating Jesse Conger’s case as an “endangered missing person” and added him to the NCIC system at the FBI.
What Happens When a Missing Person is Entered Into NCIC?
Once someone is entered into the NCIC database they are flagged as missing making their information available nationwide. For example, if they disappear from California and get pulled over or questioned by authorities in Arizona, police are quickly able to run their information through NCIC and make a determination if the individual is possibly a danger to themselves or others. This enables authorities to take them to the hospital.
There are five categories in NCIC that a missing person can be classified in.
When a person is added to NCIC, it makes their descriptive and automobile information available to all law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and Coroners in the country.
It is a common misconception that when an adult goes missing, a reporting party must wait 24 hours before making a report to police.
“There’s just not (a waiting period,)” Oxton said told the Sy. Cloud Times. “And I think that comes back to, you know, people see it on TV, or whatever, that they have to be missing for 24 hours. But that’s just not true.
In fact, there is no national mandate that requires one to wait before going to the police to report an adult missing.
However, when a child goes missing there is a national mandate requiring law enforcement to accept an immediate missing report, report it to the FBI and enter the person’s descriptive data into NCIC. This is due to the age and vulnerability. Though this national mandate does not apply to missing adults, there still exists no required waiting period to report them.
When there is a reporting delay for some reason, or something bad has happened, the first two hours are critical.
After receiving a missing person report, police will attempt to find the person in question, which may include contacting the person who made the report, along with friends and family, hospitals and jails.
If police discover the person went missing on their own accord, legally police cannot tell the reporting party where they are if the missing person does not wish friends and family to know. Police can let the reporting party know they are alive and well and do not wish contact.
Authorities are expected to make informed judgment calls about whether the missing person is at risk of death or injury. If the person is considered “endangered” it adds more urgency to the case, meaning law enforcement has received enough evidence that the person is at risk for personal injury or death due to one of the following:
the person is involuntarily missing or result of an abduction;
the person is missing under dangerous circumstances;
there is evidence the person is in need of medical attention or needed medication such as insulin, that would severely affect the person’s health;
the person does not have a history of disappearing;
the person is mentally impaired or has diminished mental capacity, such as someone with Alzheimer’s or Down Syndrome;
the person has been the subject of acts of violence or threats;
there is evidence the person may be lost in the wilderness or after a catastrophic natural event;
any other factor that law enforcement believes the person may be at risk of physical injury or death.
Once there is a report on a missing person, it then becomes crucial that law enforcement obtain dental records, fingerprints and have the family submit a DNA sample into the Family DNA database.
Records and samples are regularly cross-referenced with Unidentified Persons, alive and deceased for matches.
Jesse Conger is listed as “endangered” in NCIC due to his mental state when he went missing. But what happens when the trail goes cold?
Until a missing person is found, their entry in NCIC remains active. Once entered police do not stop investigating the case and following up on every lead that is provided by the public.
However, some cases, like Conger’s do not resolve right away and it becomes necessary and effective for police to ask for the public’s help to generate new leads.
Family and friends commonly try to engage the public and community to help find the missing person, including setting up Facebook Pages to generate leads and offer rewards for information.
Behind every missing person appeal, and every headline is an individual story and a family experiencing heartbreak.
“For law enforcement, at times searching for a missing person is like searching for a needle in a haystack,” says Thomas Lauth, a missing person expert, and CEO of Lauth Investigations International. “Often an effective investigation is a cooperative effort between law enforcement, the public, and the media.
Lauth has worked on missing person cases for over 25 years, working with local, state and federal law enforcement. “Generating that one lead that law enforcement needs to progress with the investigation becomes of utmost importance.”
Inevitably some cases go cold but that doesn’t mean the case is closed or impossible to solve.
“While missing persons have the right to go missing, the police still pour all of their resources into investigating the disappearance which should be reassuring to families who are experiencing the trauma of having a loved one missing,” says Lauth.
Most Americans have never and will never experience the devastation that occurs in the aftermath of war on their homeland. It is hard to quantify the scale of missing persons in conflict, but available statistics reflect a vast number have gone missing due to conflict, migration and disaster.
Kosovo refugees in the aftermath of war. Photo courtesy of Euromaidan Press.
Over 20 years have passed since the armed conflict in Kosovo but as many as 1,647 families still await answers about the whereabouts of their loved ones in connection with the 1998-1999 events and the aftermath.
Families of the missing are left with ambiguity, not knowing what has really happened to their loved ones, unable to give them a dignified funeral, and unable to go on with the lives.
To help family members find information about the fate of their missing loved ones, Belgrade and Pristina adopted the Procedures on the Handover of Human Remains in 2018. The session was chaired by the ICRC along with families of the missing and international community.
Treated as a humanitarian effort, ICRC is concerned about the snail pace rate of progress. According the Chairman of the group, Fabien Bourdier of ICRC, “Only seven cases were resolved in 2018.”
Hasiba Zlatarac has been searching for her son, husband and brother since 1992 in Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
According to Balkan Transitional Justice, Hasiba Zlatarac , who lives in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, is still searching for the remains of her son Nedzad, 22, when he disappeared during the war, along with her husband Huso, 53, and her brother Fikret who was 42.
All three men were taken by Bosnian Serb forces and held at the Planjina Kuca detention facility in Vogosca during the spring of 1992.
“In June 1992, they were taken from Planjina Kuca . . . I don’t know where to” said Zlatarac. Nobody knows . . . up to this day, I’ve not heard a rumor, a trace . . . nothing.”
Zlatarac accused Bosnian authorities and politicians of “forgetting” the families of missing persons.
“I am bitter. I am angry at the government and all of them . . . It’s been 22 years since the end of the war, and they can’t even tell us where the bodies are, so we can find our loved ones and lay them to rest. Then I could also rest,” Zlatarac explained.
According to the country’s Missing Persons Institute, more than 30,000 people were considered missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the end of the conflict, and the remains of more than 7,000 of them remain missing.
Halil Ujkani in searching for his three sons, Shaip, Nahit, and Nazmi since 1999. Photo courtesy of BIRN/Serbeze Haxhiaj.
Halil Ujkani prays he will live to learn the fate of his three sons. The eldest, 29, and the youngest only 19.
On the evening of April 16, 1999, Ujkani’s three sons, Shaip, Nahit and Nazmi, left the house to travel to Montenegro to try to survive the war in Kosovo.
For three days, they stayed in villages near the Kosovo-Serbia border before they were stopped by Serbian armed forces.
“The Serbian military caught them the evening of April 19 in the village of Dreth which was Serb occupied. Ujkani told the Balkan Investigative Network (BIRN), “An old Serb woman who was taking care of her cows said that she witnessed the moment when they were stopped by the military. There was no shooting of killings that day,” Ujkani added.
Three days later, two of the 24 people who were stopped by Serbian forces, along with his sons, came back to Mitrovica after getting lost in mountain roads. They had lost contact with the rest of the group, never making it to Montenegro territory.
“On April 22, my Serb neighbors in north Mitrovica saw my son and some other while Serbian military took them in a military truck,” said Ujkani. “My neighbor Bogoljub Aleksic heard that they were taking them to Pozarevac [in Serbia].”
Ujkani, 84, is a former mine worker, said he has spent 19 years searching for his sons in what has become the most painful chapter of his life.
In addition to his three sons, two of his nephews are among the group who went missing.
“I have searched for them both among the living and the dead, said Ujkani. “Everyday I imagine that I’m finding them.”
The number of those disappeared during the communism in Albania is impossible to know, some experts believe the number to be close to 5,000 people killed that still await proper burial.
The families know the clock is ticking while living with the torture of doubt about the fate of those who vanished and were never heard from again.
Bodies Mistakenly Identified
Unknown graves at a southern Kosovo cemetery. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch/Fred Abrahams.
On March 26, 1999, two days after North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched air strikes against Yugoslavia, Serbian forces killed Halim Hajdari. His son Flurim Hajdari recollects that day when they killed his father and five brothers, the youngest only 12 years old, along with 108 other Albanian citizens.
About half of the victims were found in a nearby river, the other are still missing.
In July 1999, Hague experts invited Flurim Hajdari to a makeshift morgue in the Kosovo town of Rahovec/Orahovac where he hoped to find the bodies of his father and brothers.
Flurim Hajdari awaiting word of the fate of his missing father and five brothers. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
Personal belongings and clothing found in the graves was put on display in the same building as the improvised morgue, so family members of the missing may be able to identify the items.
By 2003, when the ICMP signed an agreement to use DNA to identify bodies, thousands of victims had already been identified by sight.
“This traditional method of identification carried significant risk of error,” the ICMP told BIRN media. The ICMP is lobbying to reverse the identifications made without using DNA.
Like efforts here in the United States, ICMP proposes collecting genetic reference samples from family members whose loved ones were already identified without the use of DNA.
In 2015, Flurim Hajdari was notified by neighbors that the graves at the Pristina mortuary were being dug up again.
A forensic team was able to identify the remains of two of his brothers, Salajdin and Rasim.
“When I showed them identification documents issued by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), they took them from my hands and gave me some with the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) stamp, without further explanations,” said Flurim Hajdari.
EULEX stated that it “held a number of meetings with those affected to explain why the exhumations were needed.”
Since then, the ICMP has issued 2,466 DNA identification reports. The exhumations were a direct result of EULEX’s efforts through forensics work and the advancement of DNA aimed at rectifying the mistakes made in the past. However, the remains of 400 people at the Pristina morgue do not match with any DNA reference samples of families of missing people.
Kushtrim Gara of the government’s missing person commission expressed concern about mistaken identifications.
“This has happened in the aftermath of the war when those responsible for these issues were international institutions and identifications were made with the traditional method,” Gara said.
Victims have been exhumed and reburied at least twice by Serb forces before hidden mass graves were discovered causing some body parts to become mixed up. At times only parts of remains were found.
“There was also mixing of the remains during the handing over of human remains,” Gara sharing her concern that there was also a problem after DNA matching started to be used.
Another problem is convincing the victims’ families to cooperate with a slow and painful process.
EULEX emphasized that the key factors for proper identifications are “the provision of accurate information as well as of complete blood references in order to carry out essential DNA testing.”
Arsim Gerxaliu, the head of the Kosovo Institute of Forensics said that the identification process must now involve talking to every family to get blood samples for DNA matching.
“Based on tests so far, around 20 percent of the cases are incorrect burials,” said Gerxaliu.
Depoliticizing the Search for Missing Persons
On the National Day of the Disappeared, the families of missing persons gather to memorialize the graves of their loved ones. Photo courtesy of ICRC/Jetmir Duraku.
On July 18, after eight years of negotiations, Albania signed an agreement to find remains of missing persons with the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons.
In September, parliament is expected to ratify the agreement to open the way to begin exhumations.
International Day of the Disappeared, on August 30, marks the day that the International Commission on Missing Persons will be launching a website to exchange information with the public about missing persons.
“We take this opportunity to once again pay tribute to the families who struggle with despair of not knowing what happened to their loved ones,” said Agim Gashi, head of the ICRC in Kosovo. “On their behalf, we urge authorities to increase their efforts in solving this humanitarian problem that continues to affect Kosovo even two decades down the line.”
Under international humanitarian law, the former parties to the conflict are responsible to provide answers about the whereabouts of people who have vanished on territories under their control.
Meanwhile, families await justice and information two decades after conflict.
A missing person poster can be our first awareness of a famous missing person case. When we see missing person cases in the news, we become fascinated on an exponential scale. This includes media coverage, their missing persons flyer, or podcasts about their disappearance. The farther away we are positioned from a missing person case—whether it’s geographically or inter-personally—the more fascinated we are, like those who rubberneck to see the aftermath of a terrible accident. A person in Indianapolis who reads all of the news coverage about the Jayme Closs case in Wisconsin might do so without any sense of paranoia, because it’s happening 400 miles away, and not in their own lives. Recent statistics regarding the number of open or unsolved missing person cases in the United States are approaching 90,000, fluctuating week to week. That may sound like a pretty comfortable number to some individuals. It makes the odds of you or someone you love going missing sound pretty slim. The fact of the matter is anyone could have a loved one go missing at some point in their lives, and there is no preclusion based on race, class, or any other kind of status.
The Importance of a Missing Persons Flyer
The total number of entries classified as Missing Person Activity in Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center was in excess of one million in the year 2016—exactly 1,862,238. Around a third of those entries are either canceled or cleared for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, many of those entries are identified with supplemental material following the discovery of remains—DNA samples, dental records, etc. Hundreds of thousands of those entries are cleared following the individual having been located, usually not too long after the report was made. Investigators follow a handful of leads, make a few phone calls, and are able to locate a missing person alive and well within 24-48 hours. There are other cases that stretch on longer, with search parties organized, investigators trying to retrace the individual’s steps, and perhaps most importantly, flyers with all of the relevant information about the missing person are circulating.
Private investigator, Thomas Lauth, is an expert in complex missing person cases. He lauds the current voyeuristic climate in the United States as perfect conditions for distribution of a missing persons flyer, “The purpose of a missing person’s flyer is to get the missing person’s face and information out there. The more individuals who see their face, the greater the chance is that the one person who might have seen something or knows something will come forward with information that could lead to their safe return.” The digital age, Lauth says, has ratcheted this type of visibility up to an entirely different level. Everyone these days is glued to their screens, waiting for the next big story to surface, or keeping up with their friends on social media. If you can get a missing person’s name or face on social media throughout the nation, that’s a well of information the boots-on-the-ground investigators just aren’t able to tap quickly and efficiently.” Viral visibility of a missing person means investigators can receive many leads—while varying in quality—to conduct a comprehensive investigation that looks at all angles of any disappearance.
How To Create a Missing Persons Flyer
When a loved one goes missing, the police turn to those closest to them for information about their daily routine, habits, personality, and behavior. Once information has been provided, those witnesses often experience a high-adrenaline need to be a part of the search effort. They organize and conduct searches, both with and without the facilitation of law enforcement. Creating and printing missing person fliers is another way they contribute to the search. Law enforcement do not typically create missing person fliers, so it’s important close loved ones compare notes to compile all relevant information for a flyer that’s easy to read and catches the eye. Digital distribution is also crucial, sharing the flyer over and over again while encouraging others to do the same. The following is a list of items that must be present on a missing persons flyer:
Name: The word MISSING should be displayed in large font over the person’s full name. This grabs people’s attention.
Date of birth
Height (in feet and inches)
Weight (in pounds)
Build (thin, medium, heavy, etc).
Hair (color, length, wavy, or straight, how they wear it the most often)
Race (Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, etc)
Complexion (fair, olive, etc)
Clothing: Describe what the person was wearing at the time they disappeared, including any jewelry, personal belongings. It’s also crucial to note any other significant physical descriptors such as tattoos, body piercings, birth marks, scars, or health conditions.
Circumstances of disappearance: This includes the date, time, location, and conditions under which the person goes missing, whether it’s of their own volition, due to a health problem, or if they were kidnapped. Be sure to include details such as whether or not this person is with anyone else and possible places they may be. This can trigger a person’s memory when they see the flyer.
And of course, a missing person’s flyer is useless without a current photo of the missing person. Characteristics such as build, hairstyle, and clothing are so important because the photograph may not reflect these details accurately.
When a loved one goes missing, their friends and families often feel helpless as they wait anxiously for answers from law enforcement. Creating, printing, and distributing a missing persons flyer is one of the best ways for private citizens to assist law enforcement. Whether on the street or online, visibility is key. Out there, someone knows something and has seen something. A missing person flyer could be the thing that triggers their memory.
How easy would it be to kidnap a child in a crowded place? Maybe the park, walking home from school or even sleeping in their own bedroom. Over again, we see parents of missing children making pleas for the safe return of their children on the news. We see the Amber Alerts and Facebook posts and immediately picture our own children’s faces, thinking “What if it happened to me?” A common reaction to something so traumatic. This is the reaction child predators elicit from their victims families every day.
A young child becoming the victim of a predator is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the fact is, it is happening every day to parents throughout the country and our own fears do not wane just because our children are getting older.
I am a parent of four grown children and a mother who has worked in the field of missing persons for over 25 years. Every day I interacted with parents who were desperately searching for their missing child. Their pain unimaginable. Very quickly I realized the crime of abduction does not discriminate based upon a child’s age.
Commonly, we think of small children when we hear the word kidnapping and we think as our children age, they are safer, but the fact is, they can become even more vulnerable as they approach adulthood. The fact is that chlid predators can predate at any age.
While teenagers are venturing out, without the protective eye of a parent, there is even more chance they can cross paths with a potential kidnapper. It is our responsibility as parents to guide our children throughout their lives and hopefully provide them with some tools that will keep them safe.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. That number accounts for nearly 2,000 per day.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates a relatively small number, approximately 115 of those missing children are abducted by strangers and listed as an “involuntary” abduction in the national database of missing children. However, this number does not account for children (to include teens), who are listed in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in various categories such as “Endangered Missing,” “Runaways” or “Other.” Many of these disappearances are considered “long-term” with more than a year having passed with no resolution or explanation as to how or why the child disappeared. The fact is, we just don’t know, therefor accurate statistics impossible.
One thing we all can do as parents is prepare our children. Much of the following information and tools have proven to save lives.
Communicate with your children
Predators do not look like the “Boogieman.” Strangers look like everyone else. Children need to understand that everyone is a stranger, even women and seniors. It is not about being unsociable, explaining this is about being cautious.
Agree to a code word
Strangers have no business asking a child for directions or a lost pet. Many times, a predator will try to coerce a child into coming with them voluntarily without causing a scene by telling them they were sent by their parents to pick the child up. Agree to a simple “code word” like “Giraffe” or “Cheetos” that your child can remember and tell them to only trust an adult who knows the code word.
Children should be taught to trust their instincts and walk away if a stranger approaches them. Though not all people are dangerous, it is always more important to be safe than being polite.
Don’t put your child’s name on personal items
Children will tend to trust others who know their name. Never put your child’s name on personal items such as clothing or backpacks.
If approached, children should be taught to scream and run. This will scare away child predators. Reassure your child the likelihood of being approached by a stranger is minimal but should it happen, to scream “This is not my dad” or “Fire” while running away.
The stakes are high when a child becomes the target of a predator. It really is a matter of life or death. According to the FBI, statistically when a child is abducted by a stranger, the likelihood of recovering them alive diminishes with each hour that passes.
When a predator has targeted its prey, survival depends upon fighting back. For example, if approached with a knife or gun and told to get in a car, statistically the child or teen have more of a chance surviving if they fight back at the initial crime scene. Survival rates drop when a child is transported to a second crime scene.
As children get older and spend more time away from parents, it is important to communicate openly with them. They need to know the dangers and reality of abduction without feeling fear which can be paralyzing.
Children should never answer the door when home alone or answer the phone and tell the caller their parent is not home.
Use the “Buddy System” and teens should always inform their parents where they are going and with who. No compromises.
Children should avoid shortcuts through empty parks, fields, and alleys. It is better to always remain in a well populated area to be safe.
Use a GPS on their phone. There are free Apps such as Life 360. The App can be loaded on both the child’s phone and the parent’s phone and track location. Personally, my children are all grown with their own families now but my daughter and I both use Life 360 to keep tabs on each other. Though teens may demand their space, their safety trumps the right to privacy.
Remember, promote a home atmosphere that is open so kids can let you know what is going on in their lives. Child predators have been known to use distrust between parents and children in order to manipulate them. It is important to help them to have an understanding and confidence you want the best for them. Thomas Lauth has been in the private investigation industry for over 30 years, and in the cases of missing children, he stresses the importance of communication between parent and child, “We often get calls for missing children and teens. Once located and reunited with their families, we often educate parents or caregivers on tenets that would prevent this from occurring again. Regardless of circumstances, the most important thing is communication. Not only open and honest communication between parent and child, but communication safety concerning things like social media. In a world where young people are glued to their devices, it’s paramount that they remember to have awareness of their surroundings. Communicate, Educate, Communicate.”
Teaching children techniques to avoid an abduction and child predators
The window of opportunity to save oneself from danger might be seconds and children need to feel confident enough to make a split-second decision. Child predators are depending on a child’s fear to overpower and subdue them. In addition to coercion, abductors use intimidation. There are some techniques you can practice at home to build their self-confidence should they ever be face to face with a kidnapper.
Practice yelling “Stop, Stranger” or “Fire” to draw attention and yell as loud as they can.
Practice the Windmill technique which means rotating arms in a big circle so a potential attacker can’t get a good grip.
Practice the Velcro technique by having your child grab and hold onto something, not letting go. They should also learn to scream while doing this.
If a child is abducted and somehow placed in a vehicle, they should know they need to take any opportunity they can to escape while trying to keep a cool head. Child predators depend on hysteria to allow them to escape.
Children should be taught not to be passive but proactive.
Try to open the passenger side door quickly or jump in the back seat and try to escape through the rear doors.
If placed in a trunk, they should be taught not to panic but to look for the “release” that opens the trunk upon pulling on it. Tear all the wires to the tail lights and brakes if possible.
I know this is a very serious and scary topic and just the thought of having to explain to an innocent child that some people are out to hurt them is incredibly uncomfortable, but when teaching others about fire safety, Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It applies throughout life.
Kym Pasqualini is the founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults and worked with law enforcement and families of missing persons for over 25 years. Kym continues to work with media nationwide to raise awareness of missing children and adults.
It is said, ambiguous loss is the most traumatic of human experiences, and when someone you love goes missing, it is a trauma unlike any other.
Ambiguous loss occurs without understanding or closure, leaving a person searching for answers. Ambiguous loss confounds the process of grieving, leaving a person with prolonged unresolved grief and deep emotional trauma.
Ambiguous loss can be classified in two categories, psychological and physical. Psychological and physical loss differ in terms of what and why exactly the person is grieving.
Physical ambiguous loss means the body of a loved is no longer present, such as a missing person or unrecovered body, resulting from war, a catastrophe such as 9/11 or kidnapping, but the person is still remembered psychologically because there is still a chance the person may return. Such is the case with a missing person. This type of loss results in trauma and can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Psychological Loss is a type of loss that is a result of a loved one still physically present, but psychologically absent. Psychological loss can occur when the brain of a loved one is affected, such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease.
When a person goes missing, loved ones are left with more questions than answers, leaving them searching, not only for the missing person but for answers.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Pauline Boss is a pioneer who has studied ambiguous loss since 1973, and her decades of research have revealed those who suffer from ambiguous loss without finality, face a particularly difficult burden. Whether it is the experience of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, or someone awaiting the fate of a family member who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances or a disastrous event such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the loss is magnified because it is linked to lack of closure.
Those experiencing ambiguous loss find it difficult to understand, cope and almost impossible to move forward with their lives without professional counseling, love and support.
Experiencing grief is a vital part of healing, but ambiguous loss stalls the process of grieving, sometimes indefinitely. With the possibility a missing person may be alive, individuals are confounded as to how to cope.
Parents and family members of missing persons say there is no such thing as closure. Dr. Pauline Boss says the idea of closure can lead us astray – it’s a myth that needs to be set aside, like accepting the idea grief has five linear stages and we simply come out the other side and done with it.
Five Stages of Grief
It is widely accepted there are five stages of grief:
While many helpful programs are focused on these various stages, they are not necessarily experienced on order, nor are they inclusive to other issues that commonly arise, and they certainly do not include what a family experiences when a loved one goes missing.
In my nearly 30 years working with families of missing persons and unsolved homicides, I have witnessed all stages of grief and ambiguity, finding the profound effects of a loved one going missing is multi-generational and all encompassing.
Family members of missing persons must live with people’s misconception that the individual or family must move on. Like PTSD flashbacks, a missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end, and each life event is a reminder the individual, is gone without a trace.
Those of us who have never experienced having a loved one disappear, tend to react to situations using our own experiences and may relate the disappearance of an individual to the death of someone we have loved passing away. The problem is, with a missing person there is no place to grieve, to visit, no physical body to mourn.
Constant daily uncertainty is a major source of stress, emotionally, physically, psychologically and with a missing person, the uncertainty does not dissipate. When others expect one to move on, they commonly do not understand circumstances simply do not allow it.
It is not uncommon for families to experience all phases of ambiguous loss taking a toll both physically and mentally. While I was there to help, I often found myself the one who was thankful as I was blessed to see and meet, the most amazing, strong, and courageous individuals. Getting to know these families made me face my own vulnerability and the fact this can happen to any family.
The most moving of my recollections is of a young mother who had gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Her mother had contacted me and knew something terrible had happened to her daughter, insistent police needed to investigate more aggressively.
She had been missing a year during Christmas of 2002. Her mother called me to discuss her daughter’s case and told me that her granddaughter had written a letter to Santa and wanted to read it to me.
The little girl wrote:
“Dear Santa, I am not writing you for toys this year. The only thing I want for Christmas is for my Mommy to come home.”
My heart broke for this little girl. Little did I know, fast forward fifteen years later, I would be having a conversation with the same child. She had grown into a beautiful young lady and miraculously living a normal life despite growing up without her mother who remains missing. Not all are so fortunate.
Sometimes we forget how many people are impacted when a loved one goes missing. Children of missing persons, siblings, grandparents, parents, and other family and friends. The impact is immeasurable on the family structure and one needing to be studied further. What we do know, is the trauma of ambiguous loss affects everyone differently and a family can quickly spiral out of control without immediate intervention.
When a person goes missing, children are displaced, families can suffer financially due to loss of income or assets becoming tied up in the legal process, siblings of missing persons, children especially, face numerous obstacles when being raised in a household where ongoing trauma is occurring and they must live in the shadow of someone no longer there.
With missing children, parents are faced with the “not knowing” on a day to day basis. When an adult child goes missing, parents are not only left with the “not knowing”, they also face the possibility of raising their grandchildren.
As with the young girl who I watched grow up, her grandmother somehow found the courage to raise her granddaughter while continuing to search for anything leading to her missing daughter. She had found a balance providing a healthy and loving environment for her granddaughter, while facing she may never see her own daughter again.
Though not the product of abstract academic research, it was written by parents of missing children, with the assistance of law enforcement and youth professionals, containing critical information, guidance and tools parents need to help find their missing child while making every effort to focus on staying healthy. The guide contains much information to simply help families make it through a day.
Many of the parents who helped write the handbook, I had the honor of working with over the course of decades. Following, we will summarize the first 48 hours a family must make it through when a loved one goes missing. While it is focused on families who have missing children, this handbook is an important resource for anyone with a missing person in their life, regardless of age.
While the handbook contains steps to take to effectively work with law enforcement, media volunteers, how to disseminate fliers, and more – the most important part of the handbook is Chapter 7 focusing on maintaining health, preparing for the long term, the importance of not utilizing substances and medications to deal with the loss, and uniting with your remaining children focusing on their security and potential emotional issues.
“Hanging onto my sanity for a minute at a time often took all of my energy. I could not begin to look several days down the road,” said Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan who vanished June 9, 1995.
When your child is missing, you are overwhelmed with questions from police, neighbors, family and friends, and the media. At times, a parent may be faced with decisions they never thought they would have to make. One can begin to feel isolated, confused and utterly desperate with nowhere to go for support, but there is hope and it is found in the experience of other parents of missing persons who are courageous, and in my opinion, heroic.
The First 24 Hours (A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide)
Request police issue a “Be On the Look Out” (BOLO) message.
Limit access to your home until police have arrived to collect evidence. It is important not to touch or remove anything from your child’s room.
Ask for the contact information of the law enforcement officer assigned to your case. Keep in a safe place.
Provide law enforcement with facts related to the disappearance of your child, including what has already been done to find the child.
Have a good photograph available of your child and include a detailed description of your child and what your child was wearing.
Make a list of friends, family and acquaintances and contact information for anyone who may have information about your child’s whereabouts. Include anyone who has moved in or out of the neighborhood within the last year.
Make copies of photographs of your child in both black and white and color to provide to law enforcement, NCMEC, and media.
Ask your law enforcement agency to organize a search for your child both foot patrol and canine.
Ask law enforcement to issue an AMBER ALERT if your child’s disappearance meets the criteria.
Ask law enforcement for guidance when working with media. It is important not to divulge information law enforcement does not want released to media possibly compromising the recovery efforts of your child.
Designate one individual to answer your phone notating and summarizing each phone call, complete with contact information for each person who has called in one notebook.
In addition, keep a notebook with you at all times to write down thoughts, questions, and important information, such as names, dates and telephone numbers.
Take good care of yourself and your family because your child needs you to be strong. Force yourself to eat, rest and talk to others about your feelings.
The Next 24 Hours
Ask for a meeting with your investigator to discuss steps being taken to find your child. Ensure your investigator has a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management. They can call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST to obtain a copy. In addition, ask them to contact the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in their local FBI Field Office to obtain a copy of the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Plan.
Expand your list of friends, acquaintances, extended family members, landscapers, delivery persons, babysitters and anyone who may have seen your child during or following their disappearance or abduction.
Look at personal calendars, newspapers and community events calendars to see if there may be any clues as to who may have been in the area and provide this information to law enforcement.
Understand you will be asked to take a polygraph. This is standard procedure.
Ask your law enforcement agency to request NCMEC issue a Broadcast Fax to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
Work cooperatively with your law enforcement agency to issue press releases and media events.
Talk to law enforcement about the use of a reward.
Report all information and/or extortion attempts to law enforcement immediately.
Have a second telephone line installed with call forwarding, Caller ID and call waiting. If you do not have one, get a cell phone so you can receive calls when you are away from home and forward all calls to it.
Make a list of what volunteers can do for you and your family.
Contact your child’s doctor and dentist and request copies of medical records and x-rays to provide to police. Ask the doctor to expedite your request based upon the circumstances.
Take care of yourself and your family and do not be afraid to ask others to help take care of your physical and emotional needs. Your remaining children need to know you are also there for them while staying strong and healthy for them all.
The resounding message here is family members of missing persons must take care of themselves and include others in their journey to help them along when they are tiring.
It was June 9, 1995, on a beautiful evening in the small town of Alma, Arkansas. Alma is located along I-40 within the Arkansas River Valley at the edge of the Ozark Mountains with a population under 5,000 people.
That evening was the first time 6-year old Morgan Nick had gone to a baseball game. Her mother Colleen was attending the Rookie League game at the Alma ballpark and Morgan had whined about having to sit next to her mother in the bleachers. There was a nearby sand pile with other children playing and Morgan wanted to play. It was within eyesight and only seconds away, so Colleen consented.
Morgan Nick, age 6, vanished from Alma, Arkansas on June 9, 1995
Morgan ran to the sandpile, laughing with the other children while Colleen turned her head back to watch the Marlins and Pythons. A player whacked the ball and two runners tied the game, then a run was scored, and the Pythons won the game. The sound of the crowd cheering was deafening.
When Colleen stood up, she could see Morgan’s playmates walking down the hill away from the sandpile, but where was Morgan? It was approximately 10:30 p.m.
The children told Colleen, Morgan was pouring sand out of her shoe near her mother’s car parked nearby. Colleen frantically searched. Morgan was gone.
Later, the children would tell police they saw a man approach Morgan. Another abduction attempt had occurred in Alma the same day and police had a composite sketched based on witnesses of the other incident.
Thousands of leads later, numerous appearances on national news talk shows, even America’s Most Wanted, and Morgan’s mother is nowhere closer to knowing what happened to her daughter. Police have interviewed hundreds of persons of interest, searched homes and wells, and dug up slabs of concrete with backhoes, but Morgan remains missing 23 years later.
The stakes are high when a person vanishes involuntarily.
Morgan’s mother Colleen spent years keeping Morgan’s room the way it was when she vanished. She bought Christmas presents and a birthday present each year, hoping Morgan would someday return to open them.
The emotional toll is beyond words.
On Morgan’s Birthday, September 12, 2014, Colleen wrote an Open Letter to Morgan, posted on the NCMEC blog.
A Letter to Our Missing Daughter Morgan Nick
Today is your 26th birthday. Today marks twenty birthdays without you here. We miss you so desperately and our hearts are ragged with grief. We have searched for you every single day since the day you were kidnapped from us at the Little League Baseball field in Alma, Arkansas.
You were only 6 years old. We went with our friends to watch one of their children play in the game. You threw your arms around my neck in a bear hug, planted a kiss on my cheek, and ran to catch fireflies with your friends.
It is the last time that I saw you. There have been so many days since then of emptiness and heartache.
On this birthday I choose to think about your laughter, your smile, the twinkle in your sparkling blue eyes. I celebrate who you are and the deep and lasting joy that you bring to our family.
I smile today as I think about your 5th birthday. For that birthday, we took you to the Humane Society with the promise of adopting a kitten. You, my precious little girl with your big heart, took one look around the cat room and picked out the ugliest, scrawniest, most pitiful looking kitten in the entire place. Such a tiny little thing, that it was mostly all eyes.
Dad and I used our best parental powers of persuasion to get you to pick a different kitten, to look at the older cats, to choose any other feline besides that poor ugly kitty. It looked like someone had taken the worst leftover colors of mud, stirred them together, and used them to design a kitten.
You planted your five-year-old feet, looked us straight in the eye and declared that this was the kitten you were taking home. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You would not budge, and you resolutely refused to take a second look at any other cat or kitten in the room. You had a fire of conviction in your heart.
The unexpected obstacle we faced was we were not able to adopt on that Saturday but had to wait until Monday to finalize. For the rest of the weekend and all-day Monday, you fretted and pouted and worried someone else would take “your” kitten home with them. We tried to assure you that no one else would want that cat. We didn’t want to say it was because it was so tiny, or so ugly, or so-nothing-at-all-but-eyes. You could see only beauty and you were in love.
Finally, Monday afternoon came, and dad brought it home with him after work. In that moment, your daddy was your biggest hero because he had saved your kitten.
You tenderly snuggled that little bit of fur into your arms and declared that her name was Emily. You adored your new kitten and she loved you right back. Emily gained some weight and filled out a bit. Her colors started to take shape. We began to see the same beauty in her that you had seen in that very first moment.
Where you went, Emily went. You played together. You ate together. You watched Barney together. You slept together.
Which brings me to the photo. It captures everything we love about you. I would slip into your room late at night and stand there, watching the two of you sleeping together, in awe of your sweetness, and my heart would squeeze a little tighter.
So many birthdays have passed since then. So many days since a stranger ripped you from our hearts.
My sweet girl, if you should happen to read this, we want you to know how very important and special you are to us. You are a blessing we cannot live without. We feel cheated by every day that goes by and we do not see your smile, hear your bubbly laughter, or listen to your thoughts and ideas. We have never stopped believing that we will find you. We are saving all our hugs and kisses for you.
Please be strong and brave, with a fire of conviction in your heart, just like the day you picked out your kitten!
On this birthday we promise you that we will always fight for you. We will bring you back home to our family where you belong. We will always love you! We will never give up.
Love Mom (Colleen Nick) & Dad
One cannot help but feel the Nick family’s loss. So many birthdays, so many Christmases, so many days wondering if Morgan is alive. How on earth have they done it?
Hope is incredibly important in life for health, happiness, success and coping. Research shows optimistic people are more likely to live fulfilling lives and to enjoy life. In addition, hope relieves stress reducing the risk of many leading causes of death such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Having hope takes a special kind of courage I have found so many families of missing persons have mustered during the most difficult time of their lives . . . not just one season but many Seasons of Hope.