Checklist: What You Should Do
When Your Child Is First Missing

The first 48 hours following the disappearance of a child are the most critical in terms of finding and returning that child safely home—but they also can be the most troublesome and chaotic. Use this checklist during those first hours to help you do everything you can to increase the chances of recovering your child—but if more than 48 hours have passed since your child disappeared, you should still try to tend to these items as quickly as possible. All of the action steps described here are covered in greater detail later in the Guide to help you gain a better understanding of what you should be doing and why.

The First 24 Hours

Immediately report your child as missing to your local law enforcement agency. Ask investigators to enter your child into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Persons File. There is no waiting period for entry into NCIC.

Request that law enforcement put out a Be On the Look Out (BOLO) bulletin. Ask them about involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the search for your child.

Ask your law enforcement agency about the AMBER Alert Plan (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response). Through AMBER Alert, law enforcement agencies and broadcasters activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child abduction cases (see the AMBER Alert Plan).

Limit access to your home until law enforcement arrives and has collected possible evidence. Do not touch or remove anything from your child’s room or from your home. Remember that clothing, sheets, personal items, computers, and even trash may hold clues to the whereabouts of your child. The checklist in chapter 1 (Gathering Evidence in the First 48 Hours) contains detailed information about securing your child’s room and preserving evidence.

Ask for the name and telephone number of the law enforcement investigator assigned to your case, and keep this information in a safe and convenient place.

Give law enforcement investigators all the facts and circumstances related to the disappearance of your child, including what efforts have already been made to search for your child.

Write a detailed description of the clothing worn by your child and the personal items he or she had at the time of the disappearance. Include in your description any personal identification marks, such as birthmarks, scars, tattoos, or mannerisms, that may help in finding your child. If possible, find a picture of your child that shows these identification marks and give it to law enforcement. See the chapter 1 checklist (Gathering Evidence in the First 48 Hours) for more details.

Make a list of friends, acquaintances, and anyone else who might have information or clues about your child’s whereabouts. Include telephone numbers and addresses, if possible. Tell your law enforcement investigator about anyone who moved in or out of the neighborhood within the past year, anyone whose interest in or involvement with the family changed in recent months, and anyone who appeared to be overly interested in your child.

Find recent photographs of your child in both black and white and color. Make copies of these pictures for your law enforcement agency, the media, your state missing children’s clearinghouse, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® (NCMEC), and other nonprofit organizations. Chapter 4 (Photo and Flier Distribution) contains suggestions on how to produce and distribute fliers and posters.

Call NCMEC at 800–THE–LOST® (800–843–5678) to ask for help. Also, ask for the telephone numbers of other nonprofit organizations that might be able to help.

Look in the Additional Resources section at the end of this Guide to find the telephone number of your state missing children’s clearinghouse. Then, call your clearinghouse to find out what resources and services it can provide in the search for your child.

Ask your law enforcement agency to organize a search for your child. Ask them about using tracking or trailing dogs (preferably bloodhounds) in the search effort. Read chapters 1 (The Search) and 5 (Volunteers) as you prepare for the search.

Ask your law enforcement agency for help in contacting the media. Chapter 3 (The Media) contains advice on working with the media.

Designate one person to answer your telephone. Keep a notebook or pad of paper by the telephone so this person can jot down names, telephone numbers, dates and times of calls, and other information relating to each call.

Keep a notebook or pad of paper with you at all times to write down your thoughts or questions and record important information, such as names, dates, or telephone numbers.

Take good care of yourself and your family because your child needs you to be strong. As hard as it may be, force yourself to get rest, eat nourishing food, and talk to someone about your tumultuous feelings. When you can, read chapter 7 (Personal and Family Considerations).

The Second 24 Hours

Talk with your law enforcement investigator about the steps that are being taken to find your child. If your law enforcement investigator does not have a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management, suggest that he or she call NCMEC at 800–THE–LOST® (800–843–5678) to obtain one. Also, your law enforcement investigator can contact the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in the 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, yard workers, delivery persons, and anyone who may have seen your child during or following the abduction.

Look at personal calendars, community events calendars, and newspapers to see if there are any clues as to who was in the vicinity and might be the abductor or a possible witness. Give this information to law enforcement.

Expect that you will be asked to take a polygraph test, which is standard procedure. If you have not done so yet, read chapter 1 (The Search).

Ask your law enforcement agency to request that NCMEC issue a broadcast fax to law enforcement agencies around the country. If you have not already read chapter 4 (Photo and Flier Distribution), try to read it now.

Work with your law enforcement agency to schedule press releases and media events. If necessary, ask someone close to you to serve as your media spokesperson. Chapter 3 (The Media) provides tips on working with the media.

Talk to your law enforcement agency about the use of a reward. When you can, read chapter 6 (Rewards and Donations).

Report all extortion attempts to law enforcement.

Have a second telephone line installed with call forwarding. Get caller ID and call waiting. Ask law enforcement to install a trap-and-trace feature on your phone. Get a cellular phone or pager so you can be reached when you are away from home.

Take care of yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask others to take care of your physical and emotional needs and those of your family. Read chapter 7 (Personal and Family Considerations) for specific suggestions.

Make a list of things that volunteers can do for you and your family. See chapter 5 (Volunteers) for ideas.

Call your child’s doctor and dentist and ask for copies of medical records and x rays. Give them to law enforcement.

Talk to your law enforcement agency about creating a Web site to capture information on leads. Designate a screened and trusted volunteer to manage the Web site.

The AMBER Alert Plan

What Is the AMBER Alert Plan?

The AMBER Alert Plan is a tool that law enforcement agencies can use to safely recover abducted children. It should be one component of the law enforcement agency’s broader child recovery plan.

The AMBER Alert Plan is a voluntary partnership among law enforcement agencies, media outlets, and transportation agencies. This partnership focuses on the recovery of abducted children by disseminating timely and accurate information about the child, the suspected abductor, and the vehicle used in the commission of the crime. Through AMBER Alert, law enforcement agencies and broadcasters activate an urgent news bulletin in the most serious child abduction cases. Broadcasters use the Emergency Alert System (EAS), formerly called the Emergency Broadcast System, to air a description of the missing child and suspected abductor. Under appropriate circumstances, transportation authorities can use changeable message signs (CMS) to communicate important AMBER Alert information to motorists.

How Does the AMBER Alert Plan Work?

Once law enforcement is notified about an abducted child, it first determines if the case meets the AMBER Alert Plan’s criteria for triggering an alert. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) suggests that the following criteria be met before an alert is activated:

  • Law enforcement believes an abduction has occurred.

  • The child is 17 years old or younger.

  • Law enforcement believes the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death.

  • Sufficient descriptive information about the victim and the abduction exists to believe that an immediate AMBER Alert broadcast will help.

  • The child’s name and other critical information, including the fact that the case is considered a child abduction, have been entered into the NCIC system.

If these criteria are met, alert information is put together and faxed to media outlets designated as primary stations under EAS, which in turn send the same information to area radio, television, and cable systems where it is broadcast to millions of listeners. Radio stations interrupt programming to announce the alert and television and cable stations run a “crawl” on the screen with a picture of the missing child. CMS can also be used to display information to motorists.

For more information about the AMBER Alert Plan, visit DOJ’s Web site at

Is an AMBER Alert Issued for Every Missing Child?

AMBER Alerts are issued by a law enforcement agency in cooperation with the media if the circumstances surrounding the child’s disappearance meet local or state AMBER Alert criteria. If the circumstances do not meet the criteria, remember that the media can still be called on to help in the recovery of your child. See chapter 3 (The Media).

If we could have gotten the word out immediately when Morgan disappeared, I’m certain she would be home with me today. With the AMBER Alert Plan . . . time is now on the side of every parent and child.

—Colleen Nick

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When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide OJJDP Report • May 2004