Public appeals were used in 71% of missing children cases in 2015 via channels such as websites and social media. The notfound.org app, for example, is a public appeals tool that replaces a website’s useless ‘404 page not found’ error messages with posters of missing children. By doing so, thousands of website error pages help share information about geographically relevant missing children cases which increase the chances of finding them.


National Child Alerts

In extremely worrying missing children cases where the life of the child is at immediate risk, national child alert systems are additionally deployed. These national child alerts make use of varying channels including billboards and text messages to spread the word of the disappearance to as many people as possible in the shortest time. In 2015, national child alerts were used 15 times by 7 countries.

Impact of publicity appeals

Missing Children Europe has recently launched a scoping research regarding the impact and effectiveness of publicity appeals for missing children, in cooperation with the University of Portsmouth and the University of Abertay. 

Publicity campaigns through posters, social media, on websites etc. are commonly used to safeguard missing children. Very few to no attempts have however been made to evaluate the effectiveness of publicity campaigns, all of which were carried out in the USA. While scarce, the research tends to suggest that publicity appeals don’t necessarily positively impact the investigation or search. The dissemination of images of missing children furthermore raises potential issues regarding the impact that it may have on the protection of the child’s privacy and overall wellbeing. 

To address these potential concerns, Missing Children Europe ‘s scoping study will aim to explore the use of publicity appeals in cases of missing children, and to learn from and share experiences and good practices. One of the promising practices already mentioned by a participating organisation is the cooperation with Google in completing appeals under the right to be forgotten.

The initial scoping research "Once missing - never forgotten?" can be found here.

The Shannon Matthews Case

Nine-year-old Shannon Matthews disappeared after a swimming trip with her school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, on 19 February 2008. Her mother, Karen Matthews, reported her missing after she failed to return home as expected. Police announced that they have started a massive search involving more than 200 officers as concern grew for the missing girl. Her mother made a plea for her return and posters featuring Shannon's picture were put up around the neighbourhood. A day later nearly 200 volunteers joined police in their hunt for Shannon. Over the course of the next few days Karen Matthews issued an emotional public appeal for Shannon's return on the eve of Mother's Day.

The operation, involved 250 police officers costing over £3.2m became one of the most high profile missing person's inquiries ever seen in Britain and received intense media coverage by the British and international press.

Twenty-four days after her disappearance Shannon was found alive under a bed in a house owned by Michael Donovan, the uncle of Karen Matthews's partner, less than a mile from her home. She had been drugged and tethered in the flat where she was found. It eventually emerged she had been kidnapped by her own mother and that the pair plotted to claim the £50,000 reward money put up by the press for the youngster's return. Shannon is one of Karen’s seven children by five different fathers.  Shannon was chosen because she was a girl and she was more photogenic, maximising the financial reward.  Karen Matthews and Michael Donocan were later convicted for their involvement in the kidnapping, false imprisonment, and perverting the course of justice.[1]

Following from that, Shannon was given a court-appointed new identity and welcomed into a new family. Now, that little girl, whose face was seen in newspapers and TV, due to her mother's lies, is an 18-year-old woman.

In February 2017, The BBC released, without Shannon’s consent, a drama called ‘The Moorside’ based on this case. The programme focuses on Matthews’ friend Julie Bushby, who orchestrated the hunt for Shannon. The BBC, defending the programme stated that “This drama is not focused on Shannon Matthews herself. Her abduction is not portrayed, nor are her experiences during the time she was missing. The drama tells the story of the women who led the campaign to find her.”

Shannon’s grandparents who have not seen her since she was placed with a new family made a public statement saying: “What happened to her was a trauma, a tragedy. It is sick and disgusting that it is being turned into a TV show. It isn’t entertainment. It’s real life and it hasn’t even been 10 years since it happened”.

“If she sees it, Shannon is old enough now to understand that it is about her. She will know it is about the terrible things that happened to her. How is that fair? “It will upset her. They shouldn’t be dragging up the past and what happened. It should be left in the past”.


[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7733586.stm