Typical cases of missing children


Children go missing for many different reasons. The most typical cases include:

- Runaways
- Parental/international child abductions
- Missing children in migration
- Abduction by third persons
- Lost, injured or otherwise missing children

Each case requires a specific approach, with governments, law enforcement agencies and NGOs working closely together.


Children who run away from home, from the institution where they have been placed, or from the people responsible for their care.

57% of missing children cases reported on 116 000 hotlines are made up of child runaways. They represent the largest category of missing children. 

Runaways often run away from situations of abuse, neglect or conflict at home or the institution in which they are placed. Others run away to someone, many times being groomed over the internet to be sexually abused or exploited. 1 in 6 runaways are assumed to sleep rough, 1 in 8 resort to stealing or begging to survive and 1 in 4 children are at serious risk of being harmed. With 26% of cases reported to the hotlines in 2017, runaways witness the majority of violence, abuse neglect and exploitation and often fall into situations of sexual abuse, alcohol abuse and drug abuse leading to depression. They are 9 times likelier to have suicidal tendencies.

Alicia is bullied in school and runs away with her boyfriend. What happens next? Read the full story here.

Runaways: Marek and Alicia 

It’s 7.30 in the evening when a 116 000 missing children hotline operator receives an urgent message from the police. Marek, a 16-year old boy, and Alicia, a 14-year old girl, have disappeared. The two teenagers have left a letter saying that they are heading to the west of Poland. The only other clue is Marek’s bike, which is found near Wroclaw central train station. 

Holding back tears, Alicia’s mother tells Alexandra, the 116 000 case manager, that Alicia had fallen head over heels for the boy, and thus would probably follow him anywhere. The clock is ticking, and since Wroclaw is relatively close to the border to Germany and the Czech Republic, the two could be in another country within just a matter of hours. 

Fearing the worst 

Alexandra, the case manager becomes particularly alarmed when Marek’s father, tells her that Marek is a horror movie fanatic who self harms. He bears scars that runs the length of his left arm. Marek’s mother adds that they are divorced, and Marek had difficulty coping with the situation. No one is sure what Marek’s intentions are, although they fear the worst.

Even though the two young lovers are underage and impulsive, apparently they have been planning and preparing their escape for quite some time: Marek had spoken to several friends about running away, but mentioned several different destinations so that it would be hard to track them. The children were also clever enough not to use their mobile phones or Facebook anymore. They had taken 700 euros with them, as well as a tent and sleeping bags. 

Star-crossed lovers

After talking further with the children’s parents, Alexandra realises that Alicia had been bullied at school. Perhaps that’s part of the motivation for their running away: Marek wants to protect his sweetheart. 

Several days pass, and Marek’s and Alicia’s parents become increasingly distraught. When Alexandra meets them, it looks like they haven’t slept a wink since the children first went missing. Five days after the children left, however, there’s finally a break in the case. Their parents manage to reach them via Facebook. Alicia and Marek claim to be at a B&B in Prague. They only have 150 euros left. The Czech police immediately check the B&B but there is no sign of the young couple. 

On their trail 

Then, in desperation, Marek’s father has an idea. He decides to transfer money to his son’s bank account. It’s a way to help his son as well as trace the couple’s movements. The strategy works: the children’s parents are alerted when Marek withdraws cash near the German border. Both sets of parents decide to go there immediately. 

Just before the parents arrive, the German police intercept the children as they try to board a bus. It seems that Marek and Alicia were found just in time. A few more minutes and they might have been lost again or even lost forever. During an interrogation, however, Marek explains that they were taking the bus to return home. By now, the children’s parents have arrived. They take them into custody and take them home. Marek and Alicia go home and go back to school, but the story doesn’t end there. They are supported by psychologists for the different problems of bullying and divorce. The relationship between the two continues, but is monitored more closely by their parents.


Abduction by a third person

Abduction of children by anyone other than the parents or the persons with parental authority. 0.2% of calls made to 116 000 missing children hotlines are made up of this category of missing children. 

Where these cases end fatally, many happen in the first few hours after the disappearance of the child.

Parental/ International child abduction

Parental abductions are cases where a child is taken to or kept in a country or place other than that of his/her normal residence by one or more parents or persons with parental authority, against another parent’s will or against the will of the person with parental authority. 

The main cause of an abduction is a conflict over the custody and residence of the children. Other causes are homesickness to the country of origin by the abducting parent, escape from problems or the abducting parent having a new partner form another country. Less common causes are a new job abroad, family events abroad (e.g. serious illness of grand-parent), and revenge.

The most commonly mentioned emotional effects of a parental abduction is parental alienation. Although parental alienation is not officially recognized as a syndrome most parents report (often long-term) psychological problems due to the period of alienation of the left-behind parent during the abduction. Child Focus analyzed his case load in 2014 and found out that 64% of abducted children had no contact at all with the left behind parent during the entire period of the abduction.

A cross border parental abduction

“You’ll never see your daughters again!”, said the note left by Lucas for his ex-wife Maryanne. Lucas and Maryanne, who lived in the same neighborhood in Antwerp, had been divorced for three years. Every fortnight, their three daughters, Charlotte, 13, Elise, 8, and Lore, 6, stayed the weekend with their father. Despite a rocky divorce, this arrangement had worked well for three years, until the day the parents had a fight over a 50 euro school bill. Suddenly, tempers flared and Lucas and Maryanne ended up yelling at each other in front of their three daughters. 

An embittered Lucas decides to kidnap his children. He leaves Maryanne the stark note and disappears. There are few leads but Maryanne thinks that Lucas probably left in a camping car. The police immediately start an investigation: they trace telephone calls; conduct a surveillance of Lucas’ bank account; interrogate neighbours, friends and family members; and search Lucas’ house. However, no leads turn up. 

In desperation, the children’s grandmother contacts Child Focus. Julie, the case manager not only coordinates the search for the missing children, she also comforts Maryanne and her mother, by phone and through home visits. Child Focus launches a campaign, posting flyers at dozens of camping areas open in Belgium during the winter season. The campaign initially targets specific regions, but is soon broadened to cover the entire country. 

Two and a half months pass and there is still no trace of the girls or Lucas. The investigating judge decides to ratchet up efforts by conducting a televised press conference. Child Focus helps Maryanne to prepare for numerous contacts with the press. Maryanne is stoic during the press conference, biting her lip to hold back tears. Child Focus also posts pictures of the children on several websites. In the weeks that follow, however, not a single useful lead is received. Lucas and the three girls seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth, or at least from Belgium. 

Crossing the border 

By now, everyone is convinced that Lucas has left Belgium. But where could he be? Child Focus turns to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, which has a partnership with YouTube. A video is produced. This medium enables Child Focus to quickly expand its coverage and generate new leads. 

Clues soon emerge from the police investigations, and Lucas’ likely location is narrowed down to the south of France, Spain or Portugal. Child Focus quickly translates the YouTube film into Spanish and Portuguese, and contacts the organisations who deal with disappearances in these countries: NGO La Mouette in Narbonne, a police unit that traces fugitives in Madrid, and the children’s organisation Apoio à Criança in Lisbon. The European 116 000 network of hotline operators proves to be of enormous value. 

The sixth day after airing the Portuguese film on YouTube, Apoio à Criança in Portugal receives a call from an alert policeman. He describes an incident at the beginning of March in which a man with three little girls was arrested for begging with a barrel organ in the parking lot of a supermarket in his village. The man’s identity was checked at the police station, but due to the omission of his middle name, his name wasn’t found in the police registers and they had let him go. 

The net tightens 

Feeling as if they are on the right trail, Child Focus intensifies its efforts in Portugal, though in the media there is officially only a mention of “the south of Europe”. Child Focus doesn’t want to alert Lucas to the fact that they’re getting closer to finding him, in case he watches one of the news reports. Meanwhile, Apoio à Criança ensures that the case stays in the spotlight of the local Portuguese media. 

A tip from the south of France raises fears that Lucas may have already left Portugal with the three girls. To ensure the net is cast wide enough, all relevant information is translated into 14 different languages and sent to all Missing Children Europe member organisations throughout Europe. Where possible, the local press is alerted, too. The media attention allows Child Focus to re-launch the story in Portugal, which remains the main focus of efforts. 

A break in the case 

By now more than nine months have passed. On the last Monday of September, the 8 o’clock news in Portugal airs the YouTube story once again, and calls for witnesses to come forward. About ten minutes after the broadcast, a sixty-three year-old man calls his local police in a village in the north of the country. He claims to have seen a man and his children begging near a local hospital, and he even suspects where the man might be staying. At 10 pm that evening, the camping car is located. Police rush to the scene where they find the father and the three girls. 

Upon hearing this news, Maryanne and her parents are overjoyed. They immediately jump in their car and drive down to Portugal. They check in with Child Focus along the way, to keep them up-to-date on the latest developments. 


That same evening, Charlotte, Elise, and Lore are reunited with their mother and grandparents. The children later testify that they lived in constant fear. Their father made them beg, which they didn’t like at all. Plus they missed their family and school friends and didn’t like living in the cramped and dirty camping car. The girls were shocked when their father had told them that they would never see their mother again. 
Charlotte, the eldest daughter, doesn’t want to see her father again, at least not for a while. She felt the weight of responsibility, taking care of her younger sisters during those nine turbulent months. Being constantly on the move like fugitives was a harrowing experience for the girls. Every time their father Lucas felt that bystanders started to show some interest in his family, he would drive hundreds of kilometres away to escape attention.
In the end though, the girls were safely found and returned to their mother and efforts were made to ensure they were able to re-integrate normally into their usual routine.

Missing children in migration

A child who migrated from the country of origin fleeing conflict or persecution, or in search of survival, security, improved standards of living, education, economic opportunities, protection from exploitation and abuse, family reunification or a combination of these or other factors, whose presence became known to authorities or caregivers of that country and whose whereabouts cannot be established.

These children often enter the EU after facing harrowing, life threatening journeys in order to escape war, violence and poverty. On the way, many of them get separated from their parents or adults responsible for their care. Some of these children have a defined end country in mind, others have been trafficked or smuggled into the EU. 60% of the children in migration accommodated in UK social care centres go missing and are never found, according the British Asylum Screening Unit. Other figures show that upto half of the children placed in certain reception centres in Europe go missing within 48 hours of being placed in a reception centre. Threats faced by children in migration according to Frontex research include sexual exploitation in terms of pornography and prostitution; economic exploitation including forced donation of organs; criminal exploitation including drug smuggling and child trafficking including forced marriage and begging.

Azlan, an unaccompanied minor on the run

It’s playtime after dinner on February 18, 2013 but Zameer can’t find his best friend Azlan, an 11-year old Afghan unaccompanied minor.
It turns out that Azlan has disappeared from the refugee shelter. The boy had been housed in the shelter ever since being intercepted by the police one month earlier. Azlan had been found being transported by a ring of human smugglers. An investigation was opened into this smuggling, and that was how the police found out that a new smuggling operation was in the works.

Azlan – who was, after all, only 11-years old – sorely missed his mother, Kashmala, who was rumoured to be heading to the United Kingdom. There was a risk that Azlan would run away again to re-join his mother, and that’s exactly what happened.

Human smugglers

While The Smile of the Child, the missing children NGO in Greece, wished for Azlan to be reunited with his mother, they did not wish for it to happen under these circumstances – in violation of the law and with the aid of criminals. Since the human smugglers would probably only be paid when Azlan arrived in the UK, they were likely as desperate as he was to get there, and desperate people can become dangerous – both to themselves and to others.

With very little time left before Azlan could complete the ferry crossing and melt away somewhere in the UK, Alexia, the case officer at The Smile of the Child, immediately arranges for flyers to be distributed in rest areas along the highway to the Greek coast. Simultaneously, she alerts the magistrate responsible for the missing case, that a case on the initial smuggling has been opened in another district, and suggests that the two jurisdictions exchange information.

The flyer campaign pays off. Two days later, the police receive a tip that enables them to stop the human smugglers at a roadblock. Azlan is found inside a truck squeezed between cargo crates. He looks dazed but is unharmed. The truck was headed for the UK.

Azlan is given temporary accommodation in another shelter. But after only four days he runs away again. He misses his mother and apparently had told a psychologist at the shelter that his mother had instructed him to come to the UK…no matter what. Azlan is just a kid so his mother’s word is the law.

Round two

Flyers are again distributed, but this time Azlan isn’t found. Alexia insists that the judge contact the British police so that Azlan can be traced in the UK but the judge is reluctant to do so. Finally, after continued pressure and many phone calls from Alexia, he relents and the Greek police contact their British counterparts.

Thanks to these contacts, Alexia finally finds out three months later that Azlan has arrived safely in London and is with his brother and mother.

Lost, injured or otherwise missing children

Disappearances for no apparent reason of minors who got lost (e.g. little children at the seaside in summer) or hurt themselves and cannot be found immediately (e.g. accidents during sport activities, at youth camps, etc.), as well as children whose reason for disappearing has not yet been determined.