Children missing involuntarily because they are lost, injured, or stranded (classified as missing involuntary, lost, or injured, or MILI) and those missing for benign reasons (classified as missing benign explanation, or MBE) constitute a substantial number of missing children who do not fall neatly into the more conventional categories. According to the most recent national incidence statistics available, children who become missing involuntarily because they are lost, injured, or stranded account for 16% of all missing children and 9% of those reported to law enforcement. Children who become missing involuntarily because they are lost, injured, or stranded are disproportionately White, male, older teenagers who disappear most frequently in wooded areas or parks and from the company of their caretakers. These cases are significant because their successful resolution often requires an immediate and well-coordinated collaborative response by law enforcement, emergency medical services, forest rangers, game wardens, and other civil authorities.
Classifying a child as missing for benign reasons is a new concept in the missing children field. Yet, children missing for benign reasons are second only to runaway and thrown way children in the burden they place on law enforcement. Children missing for benign reasons constitute 28% of all missing children, and 43% of those reported missing. In contrast to the MILI cases where the children are either injured or at risk of harm, the benign episodes are false alarms. Common situations including unforeseeable circumstances (e.g., traffic jams), miscommunications (e.g., dad picks up the child an hour before mom planned to do so), and conflicting expectations (e.g., teenager believes she is old enough to stay out 2 hours past curfew without calling or leaving a note, and mom disagrees) can cause caretakers to become alarmed to the point of calling the police even though the child is not harmed, lost, stranded, abducted, or classified as a runaway or thrown way child. Like the MILI children, those missing for benign reasons are disproportionately teenagers. However, most MBE children disappear from someone else’s home when their caretakers are not present, or they simply fail to contact their caretakers when they are not where their caretakers expect them to be at the expected time.
Law enforcement agencies are advised to respond to every report of a missing child as if the child is in immediate danger, and this recommendation includes the dispatch of officers to the scene to make an initial decision about the type and severity of the episode. Because classifying a missing child case into a “less urgent” category will often affect the investigation, this must be done with extreme caution. Here, the challenge is to minimize the law enforcement burden by training officers how to differentiate between benign and more serious episodes accurately and efficiently, and educating the public on ways to avoid miscommunications and develop successful search strategies for resolving benign episodes without involving law enforcement. It is encouraging that the incidence of MILI and MBE episodes may have declined over the past decade, perhaps, in part, as a result of the introduction and dissemination of new communications technologies.
- Sedlak, A. J., Finkelhor, D., & Hammer, H. (2005). National estimates of children missing involuntarily or for benign reasons. NISMART Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- Steidel, S. E. (2000). Missing and abducted children: A lawenforcement guide to case investigation and program management. Alexandria, VA: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
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