What to do if your child goes missing: tips from an investigator and therapist.

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What to do if your child goes missing: tips from an investigator and therapist.
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  • Parents are trained to keep their children close, but preparation is vital if a child goes missing.
  • Stay calm, consider the circumstances, and report it to the police, said investigator Darrin Giglio.
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A child going missing is one of a parent's greatest fears. Parents are trained to keep their children safe, and some implement techniques like teaching kids coded systems and words. But it's always good to be prepared in case your child ever goes missing.

Darrin Giglio, a missing-persons investigator at North American Investigations, said it's important to note that every child and every situation is different. "There are different categories when it comes to a missing child," he said. "Are they a very young child, a teenager? Are they over 18?"

Equally important to consider are the circumstances. "Is it under suspicious circumstances? A kidnapping by a potential predator or stranger? Or is it a parental abduction related to a custody battle or divorce?" Giglio said.

These factors contribute to how best to approach a scenario where a child goes missing. It's important to think through them, use your best judgment, and consult with law enforcement and missing-persons investigators if necessary.

When you've determined that your child is really missing, here are some steps to take.

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Stay calm, act quickly, and contact law enforcement

Giglio describes one scenario many people with small children fear: you look away for a moment in a big store and when you turn back, your young child is gone.

First, you should check your immediate surroundings. Children love to play hide-and-seek and they may have disappeared around the corner. But if this isn't the case and you can't find them nearby, it's important to act quickly.

"This scenario is a very, very serious matter," Giglio said. "In this case, time is of the essence and this has to be reported immediately to the police."

When talking to police, stay calm and recall as much as you can about the details of the child's disappearance. Provide the police with all necessary information, including an accurate description of your child, a current photo, and any specific, relevant information related to the time of the child's disappearance.

"If a child goes missing, it's important to act quickly," said Avigail Lev, a licensed cognitive-behavioral therapist and the director of the Bay Area CBT Center. "Your actions will depend on your last interaction with them and your hypothesis about what's happening."

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Call them if they're old enough to have a phone, and if they don't answer, leave voicemails. You can also send texts and emails reassuring them that they will not be punished and that you just want them home quickly and safely, Lev said.

While emotions can run high in these situations, it's important parents stay calm so they can assist investigators by providing as much accurate and detailed information as possible.

"This is a super-emotional situation," Giglio said. "But, as hard as it is, we have to put aside our emotions so we can be effective and clear-headed in aiding the police or private investigators. We have to be able to maintain composure in order to make the best decisions possible."

Lev added: "Don't be passive in the process and don't expect the police to make this a priority on their own."

Use social media, notify others, and stay in contact with law enforcement

When police are deployed, they canvass the area for potential witnesses and look for security-camera footage.

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In the meantime, it's important to reach out to friends, family, neighbors, and schools to inform them of the situation. They may be able to assist with a search or have information that could be useful to the investigation.

Sharing updates on social media about your child's disappearance can also be helpful, by encouraging others to help spread the word quickly and possibly generate successful leads.

"You should also reach out to all of their friends, find their contacts in their phone, and explore their Facebook, Instagram, and any other social media they use," assuming the child is old enough to be on these platforms, Lev said. "Once your child is missing, their privacy becomes secondary to their safety."

It's also important to keep in close contact with law enforcement officials and provide any updates or new information that you come across. Authorities will be able to guide you on the best course of action, but Lev said that parents should stay on top of law enforcement to make sure they're staying on the case.

"Contact the police and investigators on a regular basis," she said. "You must stay persistent, consistent, and determined with the police, continually putting the story out there, reminding people, and doing all you can to find your child."

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Search nearby areas, follow advice, and reach out to the media

If you suspect your child may have left of their own accord, it's a good idea to search nearby areas and consider places where they might have gone.

"If your child remains missing and the police have not found them, you may want to reach out to reporters, media personnel, or even influencers," Lev said. "Do whatever you need to get your child's picture out there to help find them."

Prevent future incidents by staying aware

While advances in technology provide more surveillance and help people stay connected, these same advances can distract us, said Giglio, who said that all caregivers need to be attentive and observant while with small children.

"While walking down the street, everybody is on their phone," he said. "Practice your situational awareness — know where you're going. Don't leave them in the car: don't leave them in the shopping cart alone to go to a different aisle. Even if you go to the park, eyes have to be on the child."

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