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CMFC Sound Policy Recommendations


General Note – NCMEC provides this guidance and key recommendations to consider when creating a State policy to address children missing from care, but it is not intended to be an exhaustive list of every best practice or required protocol. If you have questions or would like to request further information and resources please contact 1-800-THE-LOST or email CMFC@ncmec.org.

Before Child Goes Missing

1) Key Definitions

It is important for any agency drafting or implementing policies for responding to a missing child to avoid overly-complicated or overly-restrictive definitions. Care should be taken to ensure that each term and definition encourages an immediate response, applying all appropriate resources. No definition should ever provide a justification for delay or inaction when a child goes missing, and no definition should be so restrictive that it prevents a necessary service from being offered to a child victim.

“Missing Child” - Federal law (42 U.S.C. § 5772) defines a "missing child" as "any individual less than 18 years of age whose whereabouts are unknown to such individual's legal custodian." It is important to note this 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. In some jurisdictions, state law expands on the broad federal definition and provides further statutory guidance on how agencies should treat missing child cases in their state.

  • Suzanne's Law, a provision in the PROTECT Act of 2003 and codified at 42 U.S.C. § 5779(a), extended the same reporting and investigative procedures already provided for children younger than 18 to individuals under the age of 21.

“Sex Trafficking Victim” - The existing federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA, 22 U.S.C. § 7102) defines sex trafficking and severe forms of trafficking in persons. Any child exploited through commercial sex who is under the age of 18 is a child sex trafficking victim. A commercial sex act involves the exchange of something of value for the sex act. This can include but is not limited to money, shelter, food, clothing, drugs, etc. Child sex trafficking does not require movement of the child. Federal law does not require a victim to identify a trafficker in order to be eligible for victim status. Knowledge or information that reveals the exchange of sex acts for something of value meets the standard of the federal law.

  • The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 675(9)) directs State foster care agencies to utilize the same definition of “sex trafficking victim” listed above for the purposes of responding to children missing from care

2) Child Safety and Advance Preparation in the Event a Child Goes Missing

Caregivers, guardians, social workers and others responsible for the wellbeing of children in state custody or foster care should prepare and take the same safety precautions they would for their own family members.

Adequate preparation requires maintaining up-to-date information about the child, including:

  • Current, high-quality photograph(s) taken at least every 6 months
  • Current and accurate descriptive information about the child’s physical characteristics
    • Appropriately document any distinctive features, such as scars, marks, piercings or tattoos and keep this information updated if child’s appearance changes (hair style or color, for example).
  • Consider completing and maintaining a Child ID kit for children in foster care, which includes the above information but can also provide additional, important biometric information to assist with a missing-child search or identification.

It is also important to ensure all appropriate steps are taken to minimize or eliminate the circumstances that might contribute to a child going missing or a child’s desire to run away. This should include:.

  • Addressing factors in the child’s foster care placement and/or permanency plan that might lead the child to run away;
  • Ensure staff and caregivers are trained, and children are educated with age-appropriate safety materials and precautions to avoid risks and harm.

3) Screening and Identification of Sex Trafficking

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (H.R. 4980), specifically requires States to implement policies, procedures, and relevant caseworker training “for identifying, documenting in agency records, and determining appropriate services” for each child victim of sex trafficking and any child the State “has reasonable cause to believe” is at risk of being a sex trafficking victim. 42 U.S.C. § 671 (a)(9)(C). States are expected to consult with law enforcement agencies, healthcare and education providers, non-profit organizations, and juvenile justice systems to develop effective screening protocols and ensure these children receive adequate services to address the harm they face.

Due to the increased likelihood that a survivor of trafficking is not able to self-identify as a victim or disclose abuse it is imperative that risk assessments and screening tools are implemented in ways that do not rely on disclosure for a survivor to access necessary prevention or intervention resources. Instead professionals may consider behavioral, environmental and other reliable indicators for suspicion of exploitation through sex trafficking. Prior to implementing a screening tool, agencies are encouraged to take steps to ensure training and comprehensive policies are in place to allow for informed and specialized response.

Preparatory steps to consider prior to developing or implementing a risk assessment or screening tool may include:

  • Provide in-depth training for all staff on how to identify and respond to survivors of sex trafficking including training on trauma-bonding and associated behavior responses to trauma.
  • Thoroughly assess the environment and process in which the risk assessment or screening tool will be administered. Make necessary adaptations to the environment to include adolescent-friendly, culturally appropriate surroundings and processes to reduce potential for re-traumatizing youth.
  • Determine gaps in services and additional resources necessary to respond to victims. 
  • Develop an informed multi-disciplinary response team.
  • Develop a specialized resource and service delivery plan. 

4) Identification and Awareness of Other Risk Factors or Endangerments

In addition to proper identification of Child Sex Trafficking it is important for States to identify and document any other risks factors that might place a child at increased risk of harm if they go missing. Some issues, like a pre-existing medical or psychological condition, may already be well-documented and apparent to a foster child’s caregiver and caseworker. But other less-obvious characteristics that may be important risk factors to consider include:

  • Children with special needs, who may require an urgent response and special search considerations if they wander or otherwise leave a safe environment.
    • For children with Autism specifically, agencies should plan in advance and prepare those who are close to the child about what steps to take if child does go missing.
  • Possible adult companions.
  • Involvement with the juvenile or criminal-justice system.
  • Abuse, harm, or violence the child may have experienced beyond the reasons which led to the child entering foster care or which occurred when the child was in an out-of-home placement.

During Missing Child Case

5) Reporting Requirements

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, (H.R. 4980) includes a mandate that State agencies "report immediately, and in no case later than 24 hours” information about each missing or abducted child both to law enforcement and to NCMEC. Existing federal law requires law enforcement agencies to respond in a specific way, regardless of the reason why a child is missing. Law enforcement agencies are prohibited from establishing or maintaining a waiting period before accepting a missing child report, and must promptly enter information regarding a missing child into the NCIC system within two hours of receiving a report (42 U.S.C. §5780).

It is important for any agency drafting or implementing policies for reporting a missing child to emphasize immediate action regardless of the age of the child or the apparent reason the child went missing. This includes designating which specific individual is responsible for gathering information and making the report when a child goes missing. Designating multiple persons who can make the report or provide a back-up may also be useful, as long as the person has actual knowledge of the missing child and the reporting protocols do not cause confusion or delay.

When calling to report the child missing to law enforcement the reporting person should be prepared to:

  • Document which law enforcement agency was contacted and the corresponding missing person report number.
    • Verify that the child is entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. Law enforcement agencies are required to enter this information no more than two hours after receipt of the report.
  • Be persistent if the law enforcement agency refuses to accept a missing person report, document all follow-up steps, and consult with a supervisor.
  • Provide law enforcement with all relevant details and information about the child and case circumstances as well as photographs to assist with the search.
    • Include all of the risk factors and information cited above.

In addition to the above information, when drafting or implementing policies for reporting to NCMEC (via NCMEC’s call center, web-based reporting system, or direct system-to-system communication) it is important to ensure:  

  • The reporting person is authorized to release photographs and all appropriate information relevant to locating the missing child.
  • Visit this page for a description of other helpful information and considerations when making the report to NCMEC.
  • Information about Confidentiality/Privacy.

6) Initial Missing-Child Response and Search Recommendations

An effective policy for responding to children missing from care should also include, to the extent possible, a list of specific search recommendations and response actions to be taken as soon as the appropriate missing child reports are made. Protocols should also designate which specific individual(s) is responsible for taking each action, searching and contacting possible information sources. Several existing materials can provide guidance for drafting these protocols.

7) Other Important Notifications and Information-gathering

In addition to the required reports made to law enforcement and to NCMEC, State agencies should also identify which other key stakeholders should be notified when a foster child is missing and maintain open communication and collaboration.

Among others, it may be required or appropriate to notify the supervising dependency/juvenile/family court, attorneys, guardian ad litems, multi-disciplinary team members, service providers, schools, counselors, probation officers, siblings, friends, biological family members, foster parents, and others with a connection or interest in the child. In addition to ensuring support is provided for those affected by the child’s missing episode, each of these individuals and groups can also be valuable sources of information about the child, may be able to assist with locating the child, or may provide guidance on the likely behavior and destination of a missing or runaway child. Once the missing child report has been intaked by NCMEC, any person can contact NCMEC’s call center and add information or share leads regarding a missing child (for example phone numbers, friends and companions, or social networking platforms used by the child). Each piece of information is valuable and may be helpful in location and recovery.

8) Ongoing Case

If a child remains missing beyond a short period of time, it is important for States to draft policies directing continuous information-sharing, regular updates on the situation, and prompt response to questions and inquiries from law enforcement and NCMEC.

To the extent possible, State agencies should never close a child’s case or discharge a child from foster care due to their runaway or missing status regardless of how much time has passed. If state law does require discharge, or a child “ages out” of foster care by operation of law while the child remains missing, all efforts should be exhausted to locate the child and every possible report and notification should be put into place prior to this event. If foster care has ended or the State agency has ended their legal involvement with a child, caregivers and staff should still be directed to notify law enforcement and NCMEC of any additional information or leads they might receive regarding a missing child at any point in the future.

The majority of missing children are located safely and quickly, but if a child remains missing for a long period of time, the availability of additional forensic services makes it important to be prepared to obtain medical, dental and fingerprint records for the child to provide to law enforcement. It can also be helpful to identify and locate biological family members for DNA samples, or other reference information, to be collected by law enforcement should it become necessary.

  • Learn more about the services NCMEC provides for long-term cases.
  • Case Resources

9) Preparing for Recovery

The majority of all missing children, including children missing from care, are located and returned quickly so it is important to prioritize early planning for the child’s recovery. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (H.R. 4980), emphasizes the need to address the child’s experiences while absent from care. Community-based and specialized resources may be available and should be prepared for the child in advance of their return. State agencies should also be prepared to gather information on resources available in the area where the child is located, which may be in another city or state altogether.

  • Guardians and law enforcement agencies are encouraged to contact NCMEC for information on recovery resources that may also be available and established contacts with professionals and service providers across the country.

Finally, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (H.R. 4980) specifically requires States to collect and report information about “potential factors associated with children running away from foster care (such as reason for entry into care, length of stay in care, type of placement, and other factors that contributed to the child’s running away).” This emphasis may also make it appropriate for policies to include evaluating an individual recovered child’s placement, plans, and treatment.

After Child is Recovered

10) Notification When the Child is Located

An effective State policy should include instructions to notify all relevant parties as soon as the missing child has been located - and to provide law enforcement and NCMEC with appropriate information about the circumstances of the child’s recovery. At a minimum it is important to provide the time and specific location of a child’s recovery, but additional recovery details can help to inform the direct response to future missing child situations or even help shape outreach and prevention efforts.

Information and photographs being publicly disseminated about the child should be promptly withdrawn or restricted at this time.

11) Assessment and Prevention of Future Episodes

Locating the child is not the final conclusion. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 (H.R. 4980) at a minimum requires State protocols to:

  • Determine “the primary factors that contributed to the child’s running away or otherwise being absent from care”;
  • Respond “to those factors in current and subsequent placements”;
  • Screen to determine “if the child is a possible sex trafficking victim.” 42 U.S.C. § 671 (a)(35)

Beyond these requirements, States should consider any additional necessary screening and support for other types of harm the child may have experience or for general health/wellbeing.

In addition to providing the recovered child with the necessary support services, policies should require and remind staff to take a photograph of the child upon recovery as well as appropriately document any new physical characteristics (such as marks and tattoos).


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