MISSING PERSONS: EXTENDING TRADITIONAL POLICING BOUNDARIES TO ADDRESS A SOCIAL ISSUE

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1 MISSING PERSONS: EXTENDING TRADITIONAL POLICING BOUNDARIES TO ADDRESS A SOCIAL ISSUE Co-authors: Carol Kiernan Intelligence Manager and Manager of the National Missing Persons Unit (www.missingpersons.info.au) Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence Dr Monika Henderson Consultant M&P Henderson & Associates

2 Abstract Nearly three-quarters of the 30,000 people reported missing in Australia each year are women or children. At least 12 others associated with the missing person suffer health, work, emotional and other impacts. There are significant social and economic costs for the Australian community that are largely unrecognised. The traditional police role has focused on locating missing people. However, a holistic approach encompassing prevention, location, education and support describes the requirements for a coordinated national policy response across government departments and community organisations. This paper discusses the challenges and opportunities provided through extending the traditional view of law enforcement s role in missing persons. 2

3 The traditional police role in relation to missing persons has been the investigation of cases where a person has gone missing in suspicious circumstances. However, research and consultation provides a very different picture of the community s concerns and needs. This has major implications for both the services expected of police by families and friends of missing persons and the role that police can play in addressing the wider range of issues associated with going missing. A key good practice feature in addressing any issue is to develop a credible and comprehensive evidence base to support policy development and priority setting. A pivotal research study commissioned by the National Missing Persons Unit 1 in 1998, Missing People: Issues for the Australian Community 2, established basic information on the context of missing persons in Australia. It included analysing police and other agency statistics and case reports, consulting with a wide range of organisations directly and indirectly involved in missing person issues, and interviewing nearly 300 families and friends of persons reported missing to police. The research is a landmark study both in Australia and internationally. NMPU research shows that approximately 30,000 people are reported missing in Australia each year. These cases cover a wide diversity of characteristics and circumstances, and only a small proportion would fit the traditional view that missing persons are people who are abducted or victims of violence. The study shows that in about one in five cases, safety concerns (for example, that the person had been abducted, or suicided, or suffered an accident) were given as the reason for reporting the person missing. However, these safety concerns were confirmed relevant in only a very small percentage of cases (1.5%). Almost all cases reported to police (99.5% over a 3-year period) were located, many within hours. However, more often cases were closed because the missing person returned or made contact or because families and friends found the missing person, rather than police locating the individual. There was also a high recidivist element - one-third going missing again and under similar circumstances. The study also identified widespread community impacts when someone goes missing. For every missing person case, an average of at least 12 other people were affected in some way, either emotionally, through health or work effects, quality of life and other impacts. There were also substantial economic costs in locating missing people and addressing the impacts on families, friends and the community. The research provided some key directions to Australia s policy response to missing persons. It demonstrated: a clear need for prevention as part of any policy solution the benefits of coordinated location efforts, both across agencies and in collaboration with the missing person s families and friends and community the importance of raising awareness among relevant agencies, government decision-makers, the wider community, and missing persons themselves about the impacts of going missing and the sorts of action that each can take to mitigate those social and economic impacts the extensive and pervasive impacts on families and friends and the widely acknowledged need for support for those affected 1 The National Missing Persons Unit (NMPU) was established in 1996 with funding provided by the Commonwealth Government. The NMPU works in partnership with jurisdictional police Missing Persons Units, non-government tracing organizations, community agencies and families and friends of missing persons. Its goal is to reduce the incidence and impact of missing persons. Further information on the NMPU can be obtained through its two websites and au.missingkids.com The NMPU is currently housed in the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence (ABCI) in Canberra. The ABCI is to be incorporated into the Australian Crime Commission in The NMPU s future location has not yet been resolved. 2 Dr Monika and Mr Peter Henderson, Missing People: Issues for the Australian Community, Commonwealth of Australia,

4 There are obvious benefits for police if missing person issues are addressed in a holistic coordinated way across government and in partnership with the community. This collaboration involves location efforts between police and tracing organisations being supported by government agencies with information that may assist in finding missing people. It also includes empowering families and friends to be involved in the search, as well as encouraging missing people themselves to make contact so that they are no longer considered missing. Further, it extends to addressing the impacts on families and friends so that those affected by the phenomenon have access to appropriate support to alleviate the distress and other consequences experienced. Effective prevention and an informed community can reduce the social and economic costs associated with missing persons. While missing persons is not solely an issue for law enforcement, police play a key role until the missing person is located safe and well. They are also well placed to provide a referral point for missing people and their families to receive appropriate support so that the missing person incident is not repeated. Law enforcement is charged with providing leadership to the community in relation to significant missing person issues, encouraging partnerships to build capacity so that the community is confident that if someone is missing, a professional, coordinated service is provided to locate them and ensure that they are safe and well. The community must be simultaneously reassured that the dignity, confidentiality and privacy of missing people, victims and others involved is maintained. Finally it is important for all involved that a non-judgmental attitude is adopted both during the search and also on location of the missing person. PLEaS: A Good Practice Response Australian law enforcement has recently endorsed a national and coordinated approach to missing persons, PLEaS, based on four key principles (prevention, location, education and support) 3. Prevention reduces the incidence of missing persons and therefore the emotional and financial costs, promoting and enhancing a safer society for all Australians. Location recognises the critical need to find the missing people as quickly as possible through a coordinated, national approach to reduce the impact on families and friends and the missing people themselves. Education increases the awareness in relation to missing persons to minimise the incidence, enhance the response and encourage a whole-of-government approach in cooperation with the community. Support minimises the trauma suffered by the missing people, family, friends and the impact on the community. Principle One: Prevention Almost half of those reported missing each year are unintentionally missing. They have forgotten to let someone know where they have gone or their change in plans. Reminding Australians of the need to maintain connections can prevent the necessity for some missing person reports and allow limited police resources to be targeted to more serious cases. Furthermore, one third of those missing have gone missing before and under similar circumstances. This group needs to be identified to address the underlying causes, reduce their vulnerability and the devastating impacts on those they leave behind. 3 These principles were developed in consultation with the two NMPU national committees, the National Advisory Committee on Missing Persons and the Police Consultative Group on Missing Persons. 4

5 The strategic goal for police under this principle is to play a leadership role in developing sound prevention practices both at the jurisdictional and national levels. This can be achieved through: Partnerships with other agencies and within the police service to maximise resources and share good practice. Solid research to build appropriate, targeted and measurable prevention strategies including strategic analysis of the missing person population, recidivism, early intervention and the identification of special needs groups. Implementation of strategies with sharing of resources within and across jurisdictional boundaries. Evaluation and analysis of prevention strategies/campaigns. Principle Two: Location Missing people should be located as soon as possible to reduce the impacts on those left behind. Early location also reduces the missing persons vulnerability to becoming either a victim of crime, or in some cases, an offender. It is mandatory in all jurisdictions that a missing person report is taken by police, where there are serious concerns for safety and welfare. Action is then initiated as soon as the report is taken. In over half of the police cases, the missing person returns or makes contact of his or her own accord. Police, non-government tracing organisations or family members locate the remainder. A multi-faceted approach is required, recognising the variety of ways in which early location can result. Coordination within the jurisdiction and across jurisdictional boundaries, with police and nongovernment tracing organisations roles and responsibilities clearly articulated, is essential to prevent gaps in service and duplication of effort. Reviews of those few cases not located quickly are necessary to ensure that all inquiries have been exhausted and that any cases of a similar nature have been identified. Families require regular contact and feedback from police to be reassured that a professional investigation is being conducted and that there is a coordinated national approach. The strategic goal for police under this principle is: to work in cooperation with non-government tracing organisations to deliver a coordinated national approach to achieve the early location of missing people and a process of continuous review of cases unresolved. This can be achieved through: National minimum standards of operation for jurisdictional police and non-government tracing organisations. Clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. Mechanisms in place for an immediate response that is both appropriate and effective. Specialised coordinated investigative procedures with appropriate monitoring and review (jurisdictional, national, and international). High-level, regularly evaluated customer service to those reporting a missing person. Professional, accessible and responsive case management systems. Appropriate publicity including media liaison and current information available via public internet and jurisdictional intranet. Principle Three: Education: An objective base is required to better inform policy makers and practitioners so that effective strategies can be established in the missing person arena. All levels of the community need to be informed by empirical research rather than misguided, ill-informed impressions of missing persons and their issues. Greater awareness within the community of the ongoing impacts when someone is missing alleviates some of the difficulties encountered by those impacted. Improving the understanding of the missing person phenomenon may also help to prevent or reduce the length of time a person voluntarily stays missing. Awareness can address unrealistic expectations about the police role which, when not met, contribute to family distress and a lessening of confidence in the 5

6 police. It can also result in positive and helpful media coverage and a more balanced appreciation of personal safety. Finally, education results in more effective partnerships across government and the community to reduce or preferably avoid, the traumas and costs associated with missing people. The strategic goal for police under this principle is: to contribute to strategies which improve awareness of missing person issues. This can be achieved through: Contributing to research on critical issues related to missing persons. Aligning research outcomes with existing police services, particularly in regard to training and community liaison. Increasing awareness of relevant government agencies about their potential role in missing person incidents. Coordination with consistent awareness messages across Australia. Maximising existing resources/programs/agencies. Developing and sharing successful educational programs. Reviewing processes to address identified trends. Constantly reinforcing key issues. Strengthening relationships and building further partnerships with business and across the community. Principle Four: Support Families, friends and the missing people themselves suffer significant impacts associated with the missing person incident. These include impacts related to health, work, quality of life, emotional, relationship and economic issues. In Australia someone goes missing every 18 minutes and at least 12 people are affected for each case. For a few, this impact is ongoing. Families need to be connected with support services to assist them to cope with the impacts while the missing person is located and with the reconnection to ensure that issues influencing the disappearance are addressed. The strategic goal for police under this principle is: to develop and provide appropriate referrals to support families left behind and missing people when located. This can be achieved through: Research to identify those individuals and groups requiring support; the type of trauma and impact suffered and support services required. Resources to establish support networks with government, non-government, and community groups providing emotional and practical support. Development of expertise with ongoing identification and alignment of specific services to satisfy the broad range of client needs. Conclusion There are only finite resources in missing persons, inadequate to address the current need. Through promotion of the PLEaS framework, the intention is to encourage improved cooperation, integration and participation from a wider number of support services to assist police in responding to the needs of families of missing people and the missing people themselves. The PLEaS guiding principles support the vision of a community united in its efforts to reduce the number of missing people and minimise the consequences when people do go missing. They have been adopted by all Australian State and Territory police services. The approach promotes a very different role for police than the traditional one of investigation of cases where a person has gone missing in suspicious circumstances. It promotes a role for police that is more closely aligned with the actual context of missing persons and with identified community needs, as well as being consistent with strategic directions being taken by policing in response to other relevant issues, such as partnership-based and problem-solving approaches. 6

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