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Frequently Asked Questions

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What is the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children?

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to help find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation, and prevent child victimization. Since 1984, NCMEC has served as the national clearinghouse and resource center for families, victims, private organizations, law enforcement and the public on issues relating to missing and sexually exploited children. Today NCMEC performs 15 specific programs of work, funded in part by federal grants, including:

  • Serve as a national resource center and information clearinghouse for missing and exploited children;
  • Operate a national, toll-free, 24-hour missing child hotline;
  • Provide assistance to families/legal guardians and law enforcement agencies in locating and recovering missing and exploited children;
  • Operate the CyberTipline® for online reporting of the sexual victimization of children and inappropriate sexual content (34 U.S.C. §11293).

See full list of the 15 programs and services NCMEC performs today.

What is the definition of a missing child?

Federal law (34 U.S.C. §11292) defines a "missing child" as "any individual less than 18 years of age whose whereabouts are unknown "to the child's parent or legal guardian". This broad definition includes children who may have been abducted by a non-family member, wrongfully taken or retained by a person related to them, wandered away from a safe environment and become lost, been displaced by disaster, run away from a home, foster home, or state care facility, or otherwise have gone missing for any reason at all. NCMEC's Missing Children Division can assist with any of these categories. In some jurisdictions, state law expands on the broad federal definition and provides further guidance on how agencies should treat missing child cases in their state.

Is there any kind of waiting period for reporting a missing child?

There is NO waiting period.

  • If a child in your legal guardianship goes missing from care, for any reason, immediately contact your local law enforcement agency;
  • Law enforcement agencies are prohibited from establishing or maintaining a waiting period before accepting a missing child report.

See What to Do: If a Child in Care Goes Missing

Can I just make a report to my local law enforcement agency or do I have to make a report to both law enforcement and NCMEC?

You must make a report to BOTH your local law enforcement agency and to NCMEC. Please be aware that a report to law enforcement and entry of the child into the NCIC system does not automatically generate a report to NCMEC. A separate report must also be made to NCMEC after contacting law enforcement.

See What to Do: If a Child in Care Goes Missing

Should I only report a missing child who is believed to be a victim of child sex trafficking?

No, the law now requires social service agencies to report any child who has gone missing from care for any reason.

Is there anything I can do after making a report to law enforcement and NCMEC?

Yes, there are steps you can take after making the missing child report.

See missing child checklist for families

Does NCMEC publicize that a missing child is in foster care or a victim of child sex trafficking?

No. NCMEC takes care to protect and maintain the privacy of information regarding missing children, and consults with the parent/guardian and investigating law enforcement agency before disseminating identifying information publicly. Every missing child is important regardless of their home or family environment. All are deserving of the same array of resources and attention, so NCMEC takes care to ensure foster children and victimized children receive a prompt, appropriate response.

See Helpful Information: Making a NCMEC Report

Can NCMEC provide services even after a child is recovered?

Yes, in general, NCMEC’s Family Advocacy Division can assist families and social workers to identify areas of need and find the right community-based resources to address those needs. 

Additionally, NCMEC’s Child Sex Trafficking Program Specialist can assist social workers to develop a specialized recovery plan for a child believed to be a victim of child sex trafficking.  

See When a Child is Recovered

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This Web site is funded, in part, through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor any of its components operate, control, are responsible for, or necessarily endorse, this Web site (including, without limitation, its content, technical infrastructure, and policies, and any services or tools provided).