Look for me: Why 3,000 children go missing every year
The spring and summer months are hectic times for the “Search for Missing Children” charity as this is when most Russian children go missing. The charity’s President, Dmitry Vtorov, has been telling the Agency of Social Information (ASI) why it’s important to start looking for children straight away, what ordinary passers-by can do to help and what runaway children are scared of.
Why charities look for children
An average of 49,000 children go missing in Russia every year. About 10% of reported cases go through voluntary organisations such as “Search for Missing Children”. Charities cannot solve all the problems nor replace the work of public services.
“Our job is to offer help at crucial moments. The police involve volunteers where there are certain risks, e.g. two days have passed and there’s still no sign of the child, and when there are strong reasons to believe that things will not end well. It is at that point that efforts are needed by the public to ensure the swift and safe return of a child”, said Vtorov.
Some stories do have a happy ending when a child is found quickly and unharmed. For example, a nine-year old boy, Vova, was found in Moscow having disappeared on 1 February. He had had an argument with his father and left home. Police and volunteers went out looking for him. A policeman involved in the search was patrolling in the area where Vova lived. Near the boy’s home, he found an open manhole. Looking inside, he saw Vova – the boy had fallen in and couldn’t get out. The boy could have died had he not been found so quickly.
Three days prior to the search
A commonly held view is that the police don’t start looking for someone until they have been missing for three days. In fact, this is not the case.
“There is no reference to a three-day response anywhere in law. It is true that this misconception was used by some ignorant people during the 2000s. A police officer is allowed three days by law to decide if a criminal or investigative case should be initiated. The police always make this point whenever they’re asked “why haven’t you taken any action?” During this time, people should talk to relatives and close friends of the missing person, carry out searches and then assess the situation before deciding what to do next”, said Vtorov.
The police carry out searches for missing children in our country. An Investigation Committee is set up if a missing person is not found within 3-5 days, initially with powers of oversight when an investigative case becomes a criminal one.
Children most often go missing in spring or summer while most of Russia is enjoying fine, warm weather, with the numbers decreasing as we move into the colder autumn and winter months.
“This is mainly due to the fact that most children decide to leave home on their own volition. They don’t always manage to find somewhere to stay overnight and so end up spending the night on the streets or in abandoned buildings”, said Vtorov.
Children who leave home wilfully are referred to as “runaways” on volunteer search engines and, according to Vtorov, account for at least 80% of all missing children. There have been repeated instances of children leaving home on their own volition for a second or third time. There are also children who go missing 15-20 times for a short period of time. The remaining 10-20% are children who leave home as a result of a single traumatic argument with family, relatives or classmates which often ends tragically. On one occasion in Kaliningrad, two girls, 13-year old Anya and 14-year old Katya, ran away from home after a major fall-out with their parents. The search for the “runaways” lasted a day. In the end, one girl threw herself off a high-rise building and died, while the other, fortunately, managed to stop herself from jumping straight on to a house roof.
“Children, especially those who leave home for the first time, are at great risk because they don’t know how to fend for themselves on the streets in an environment which is alien to them. They can easily become a victim of crime or get injured. There have been cases of children being asphyxiated from inhaling carbon monoxide, being badly injured on building sites or by thrown away objects, sometimes they die. These children can easily become involved in criminal activity”, said Vtorov. A nine year-old boy, Yura, ran away from home in the city of Guryevsk in Kaliningrad oblast. He was found two days later by passers-by on an abandoned site, having died from inhaling air freshener.
Each year, around 3,000 children who go missing do not return home, comprising the overall number of dead or unidentified children whose cases are carried over into the following year. However, it’s impossible to say exactly how many children suffer who have either left home wilfully or those who have been abducted.
“State services, for example, don’t take account of children who are injured in traffic accidents even if they’re treated as those who have left home on their own volition. In fact, there have been incidents which have resulted in the death of a child but who, the statistics say, is considered a victim of a traffic accident if he’s part of a criminal investigation”, said Vtorov.
If you see a child on their own
An every-day passer-by can come to the rescue of a lost child. “We all have a shared responsibility. We must look out for other people’s children and for what happens to them out on the streets. Don’t be afraid to go up to them to ask and find out what’s happening. The more this is brought to the public’s attention, the quicker we’ll be able to find missing children”, said Vtorov.
According to Dmitry, volunteers working for “Search for Missing Children” are so committed to their work that when they see a child on their own in a busy shopping centre, they’ll often go up and talk to them and take them back to their mother. This has led to some rather curious incidents when an angry mother has appeared out of nowhere asking “where the hell are you taking my child?!”
According to Vtorov, it’s better to act quickly and return the child to a family member because as well as getting lost, a child can get injured, e.g. by falling down an escalator.
“We had a case of a young girl who fell in with a bad crowd and went on a trip with them. They later dumped her so she ended up being lost. A woman noticed the girl crying at a metro station, all on her own. She was a bit wary of approaching the girl to find out what had happened so called the police. An officer arrived on the scene, the girl was found and returned home”, said Vtorov.
Of course, things don’t always work out so well. Sometimes, passers-by don’t want to get involved in other people’s business while a child is often too afraid to approach an adult and get help. This is linked to the fact that a child runs away from home with a lot of intense emotions which make it very difficult for them to go back. They don’t know what to do having ventured out into the unknown. This phenomenon has its own term: the problem of taking the “final step”. “Sometimes, we find a child near the front door of a house from where they’ve disappeared. The child has come back but can’t bring himself to ring the bell because he’s too afraid to take that final step. Neighbours, volunteers and concerned passers-by can all play a huge part here”, said Dmitry.
Stopping people from running away
Preventing children from running away from home is obviously unrealistic. However, according to Dmitry, the number of cases can be reduced with some preventative help.
The “Search for Missing Children” charity led by Vtorov organises classes with schoolchildren in small groups in which, during the course of an hour, they are told how to keep themselves safe, as well as on appropriate standards of behaviour. “We try to impress on the children that there is no problem in life that cannot be resolved or overcome. We teach them how to deal with problems when they arise, as well as advising them on how to behave and interact with their parents. We try and help children get over the fear of being punished when they’re brought home. On the contrary, everyone will just be pleased that they’ve returned safely”, says Dmitry.