Missing persons classifications

Cases of missing children on the NCMEC site are sorted into different categories. To get a rundown of the ones that are used, For the Lost has a glossary. One thing they all have in common, however, is that they are usually permanent. Cases are rarely moved from one classification to another. This is a concern. Some are much more likely to capture people’s attention, such as Non-Family Abduction as opposed to Endangered Missing. Since on the posters the classification is at the top, that can be all that is required to make someone look harder. Or not.

To be fair, there are cases where it’s pretty clear what happened to the child. There was a note or conversation that stated the child was running away, they were not returned after a visit with a non-custodial parent, they were witnessed being abducted by a non-family member, they got lost at the beach. If one of these is not clearly applicable, the term Endangered Missing is used. (Teenagers are the exception. Unless there is clear evidence they didn’t leave on their own, it will be called an Endangered Runaway case.) Time will often make things clear. If a child vanishes in their neighborhood, they could have left on their own, gotten lost, or been abducted. If the child is sufficently young, the first can be ruled out quickly. If there is no clear sign of the child getting lost, that rules out the second. There are several disappearances of young children that were at first ambiguous but later were concluded to be non-family abductions. NCMEC typically does not re-classify them, despite this. The one re-classification that is used is when runaways gone for a significant period of time are changed to Endangered Missing. While for the most part this is a prudent change, it is also worth noting that many runaways are located several years after they have vanished. Is this system of guessing foolproof? No. Jane Puckett went missing in 1977, and was classified as a non-family abduction, yet she was found safe only a few weeks ago.

In my opinion, Endangered Missing is best used when there is a true mystery involved – if nothing can be concluded from the circumstances or the person just vanishes. And if later on different evidence is uncovered, then changes should be made.

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