Losing a child in a crowded store, mall, or amusement park is every parent’s worst nightmare. One minute they’re by your side, the next, they’re gone. After that, it’s all shouting “Give me back my daughter” into the phone or beating up Albanian hitmen in a Paris cul de sac. Well, not really. In reality, flop-sweating, not calm determination, is the constant in panicked child-finding. This is both understandable and an overreaction. When a child goes missing, the kid has most likely simply wandered away ⏤ often to the toy aisle. Last year, over 463,000 children were reported missing to law enforcement. Only 150 of those cases were actual abductions. Still, reassuring as those numbers might be, losing a child remains terrifying. It’s hard not to scream, “What should I do?”
Don’t scream. But do consider your next steps because there is actually a concrete answer to that question.
But what exactly should a parent do if they look down to find their child missing? The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is a Virginia-based non-profit that helps parents, businesses, and law enforcement locate missing kids. Created by an act of Congress is 1984, NCMEC provides training, public awareness, and a national hotline. They’ve also created a series of well-accepted protocols known as “Code Adam” outlining a set of steps businesses should do if a child gets lost in their establishment. Which is why we asked Callahan Walsh, a child advocate at NCMEC, to walk us through what parents should do upon noticing their child has wandered away. Here’s what he recommends:
Easier said than done, keeping a cool head is vital to finding your lost child. “Law enforcement or store employees need an accurate description of your child,” says Walsh. “And if you’re frantic and you can’t come up with that information, it’s going to make it very difficult.” Not only that, he says, but if a parent accidentally provides false information because they’re not thinking clearly ⏤ for example, if they say the child was wearing a black shirt when it was really blue ⏤ employees could be looking for a child who doesn’t match your description and pass right by your child. “Staying calm and being able to recant information is key,” says Walsh.
Do a Quick Perimeter Search and Immediately Find an Employee
While Walsh’s first recommendation is to find a store employee stat, he says a quick search of the immediate vicinity where you last saw your child ⏤ and yelling out their name ⏤ can be helpful. Especially if you’ve smartly taught your child to stay put when separated. Just don’t spend too much time searching, says Walsh. It’s far more important to track down an employee and get more people involved in the search. “Time of the essence,” he says, especially in the case of a stranger abduction. “Within the first three hours, there’s an 80 percent reduction in finding that child alive.”
Head to the Front of the Store
There are a number of reasons Walsh recommends parents make a beeline to the front of the store, not least of which is that’s where the store’s employees usually are ⏤ and getting the word out is critical. Second, if somebody is trying to leave with your child, they will usually exit out the front door, and that’s where you could possibly intervene. And finally, “one of the things that we see very often is a child try to leave the store and go out to the car,” says Walsh. “That’s a very dangerous situation.” Again, by moving forward, you can potentially head them off before they get outside.
Trigger a ‘Code Adam’
A ‘Code Adam’ is a seven-step safety protocol developed by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1994 to help find missing children lost in parks, businesses, or government buildings. It’s used in over 160,000 stores nationwide including all the major big box and grocery retailers and when triggered, essentially locks a store down as employees (and potentially law enforcement) do a hard-target search of the building.
As soon as you find a store employee, says Walsh, let them know your child is missing, provide a detailed description, and ask that they enact a ‘Code Adam.’ An announcement will then be made over the intercom system that alerts other employees to jump into action. “Certain employees will be designated to certain areas of the store,” Walsh says. “Some will be brought to the front to make sure the child isn’t leaving with somebody who is not the parent. Others will check bathrooms, storerooms, and other places a parent might not obviously go but a child could find themselves.” On average, it usually takes about 10 minutes before a child is found using the Code Adam program.
If You’re Not in a Store, Call Law Enforcement Directly
If you’re in a park or at the beach, and there are no employees to trigger a Code Adam, the absolute first thing you should do is call 911 immediately says Walsh. Law enforcement would much rather receive a second call informing them that you found your child than one after the fact that says you’ve been looking for this child for 30 minutes and they’re gone. From there, try to recruit the help of bystanders. “The majority of people want to help,” Walsh adds. “So if you make that situation known, you’d be surprised at how many people will be there by your side assisting you in that search.”
No parent plans to lose their child in public, but it happens. Before it does, however, there are safety measures parents can take to prepare for a worst-case scenario and make finding their child easier. Here is what Walsh recommends doing before you ever leave the house.
Create a ‘Digital ID’ for your child
The number one thing Walsh recommends parents do is complete a ‘digital id’ for each of their children using NCMEC’s free app, Safety Central. “The app asks parents take a picture of their child and enter identifiable information ⏤ height, weight, eye color, hair color, birthmarks, and even closeup pictures of their fingertips so they can extrapolate fingerprints,” says Walsh. “The digital ID is then stored on the parent’s phone and isn’t shared with any third parties. God forbid their child goes missing, the parent could then send that digital id kit to local enforcement at the touch of a button.” Adds Walsh, “It even sends reminders to parents, to say, ‘Hey, it’s been six months, it’s time to take a new picture of your child and time to update the information.”
Develop a safety plan
In addition to teaching your children the importance of staying together at all times and not wandering away, it’s crucial to have a protocol in place should you become separated ⏤ and the child should know it well. “You want to have a place to meet,” says Walsh. “So if we get separated or lost, tell them to meet here at the information booth at the front of the gate or at the ice cream stand.” To help parents come up with a safety protocol for your family, NCMEC provides a number of helpful going-out guides and safety checklists on their website.
Teach them your full name and cell phone number
“It’s surprising how many younger kids who are lost say ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ when asked for their parent’s names,” says Walsh. As soon as a child is old enough, teach them the full names of both parents ⏤ and quiz them often. No, they don’t need to start calling dad, “Dave,” but knowing daddy’s name is David is key. Similarly, while nobody may remember phone numbers anymore thanks to cell phones, if a found child can provide a store employee or police officer with your phone number, it makes tracking you down that much easier.
Take a picture on your way out the door
Finally, the simplest thing a parent can do before venturing into any crowded public place ⏤ especially a sports stadium or busy amusement park ⏤ is to snap a quick picture of your child on your phone. That way you have an accurate photo both of what they look like and what they’re wearing that day. “The photo of a missing child is the most important tool when it comes to their recovery,” says Walsh. “So having that photo be accurate, and taken that day, could be the key to success in bringing that child home safely.”