Once missing - never forgotten? The case for and against publicity appeals for missing children

6 April 2017:  A new report out today titled “Once missing – never forgotten?” calls for better protection for former missing children and their families from the possible negative impact of publicity appeals.

In the EU alone, at least 250,000 children are reported missing each year and a common practice in the search for missing children is the use of publicity appeals through a variety of channels including websites, social media, TV and radio interviews and national child alerts.

A publicity appeal for a missing child can result in children returning or being found, thereby safeguarding them from harm. There are however also increasing concerns regarding the child’s privacy and their right to be forgotten.

‘Once missing – never forgotten?’ collected data from over 100 professionals from 19[1] missing children hotlines from across Europe. The report, which is produced by Missing Children Europe and the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth, found that the internet and social media were becoming a primary source of information-gathering and sharing in missing children cases.

The report demonstrated that publicity appeals can make the missing child feel like someone cares, encouraging him or her to reach out to the missing children hotline or family members, thereby helping the child return to safety. However, it can be hard for a former missing child to put the past behind them because they don’t have control over their ‘digital footprint’ (images and information that remains online); the media continue to keep the story alive years after the fact and abducted children can be bullied when they return to school.

Study co-author Dr Karen Shalev-Greene, Director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, says: “Our findings highlighted a number of important issues. First, a public appeal for a missing child is always launched without the child’s consent. Yet, once found, the child must live with the consequences of their image being in the public domain. Second, once the images are in the public domain, the child does not seem to have the legal right to control the use of those images. This denies children the right to be forgotten and potentially further traumatises them. Third, once a name and image of a child are made public, it is a real challenge to remove pictures and articles that were published online. It also highlights the role of the press in making it hard to move on after a missing incident and raises the question about how the ruling by the European Court about ‘the Right to be Forgotten’ can be reinforced to ensure a child who is found can choose to resume their anonymity and protect their identity.”

The report also highlighted criticism of the recent BBC drama ‘The Moorside’ which was based on the case of a missing nine-year old girl in West Yorkshire, who was abducted by her mother and her partner’s uncle, that received major coverage in the UK and international media. The programme was aired without the victim’s consent even though she was a young child who suffered severe trauma by her own family.  Yet, as a young adult she has no control over her own life story and the press is allowed to use it regardless of how it may affect her. The report cited this as an example of the lack of legal protection and ethical concerns for children who return after going missing.

Study co-author Delphine Moralis, Secretary-General of Missing Children Europe concluded: “Better strategies must be developed to prevent these negative consequences. In order to further inform and improve  the decisionmaking process for launching appeals, further evidence is needed on the effectiveness and impact of appeals. Missing children hotlines were identified as crucial to publicity appeals in that they support the family and help the police decide whether to launch a publicity appeal based on the best interest of the child.”

A good example of what could be done upon the return of a missing child is the practice of the Belgian hotline Child Focus, who are helping children and their families to assert their ‘Right to be Forgotten’ application to Google.

This research was partially funded by the European Commission (Rights Equality and Citizenship Programme 2014-2020).

For further information:

Mette Drivsholm, Project Officer (Focal point for runaways), Missing Children Europe, Tel: +32 2 894 74 83, email: mette.drivsholm@missingchildreneurope.eu

Glenn Harris, Senior Media Manager (Research Themes), University of Portsmouth, Tel: 023 9284 2728, email: glenn.harris@port.ac.uk


[1] The respondent countries were Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and United Kingdom.

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