According to FBI’s most recent National Crime Information Center (NCIC) 0ver 440,000 children under the age of 18 were reported in NCIC as missing in the United States in 2016. SOURCE. Fortunately, over 90% of them are found or return home safely. But, even with that statistic, one missing child is too many.
For special needs children, especially those who are autistic, the risk of going missing is even higher. A 2012 article in Pediatrics reported that nearly half of families with autistic children reported their children had wandered or eloped from safe environments, and more than a third of the children who wandered were unable to communicate their name or address. Of those who went missing, 24% were in danger of drowning and 65% were in danger of being injured by wandering into traffic. “Nearly half of children with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorders) were reported to engage in elopement behavior, with a substantial number at risk for bodily harm. These results highlight the urgent need to develop interventions to reduce the risk of elopement, to support families coping with this issue, and to train child care professionals, educators, and first responders who are often involved when elopements occur.”
Most ASD diagnosed children wander or elope from home but school is the second most common setting for ASD elopements. Of 383 cases during the period 2011 – 2016 studied by the National Autism Association, 19% of them occurred from a home setting, while 81 cases (5%) occurred from school or on the way to school; four of these cases, resulted in fatal outcomes. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) conducted a similar study of missing child cases reported to NCMEC between January 1, 2007 and December 31, 2016. Their data shows 952 children with autism were reported missing to NCMEC during the period and 10% of those were missing from school.
There are also many other factors that can increase the chance of a student eloping, running away, or being lured away. Students who are homeless, suffer from emotional distress, have dysfunctional home lives, or are victims of sexual abuse are more prone to going missing.
Schools can play an important role in reducing the risks to children prone to elope or otherwise go missing. Back in 1993, Deborah Bass pointed out in an article for Children's Legal Rights Journal that law enforcement officers need crucial information and assistance from social service agencies and schools; however, in many jurisdictions there is poor communication between schools and law enforcement when a child is reported missing. Although a school may have important information needed to find a child who is missing and endangered, law enforcement does not learn it in time for it to be of use.
Much of the policy guidance we have found related to missing person risk assessments and children missing from school seems to come from Great Britain which has shown to more proactive in missing child guidance for schools and law enforcement. In 2002, The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in England published its Manual of Guidance for the Management of Missing Persons which states categorically that, “police response to any person reported missing should be guided by the outcome of an assessment of the risk involved. The guidance provides a list of factors which should be considered including personal circumstances such as the age of the missing person, their ability to interact safely with others or an unknown environment and any physical or mental health problems they may have.”
In his book Autism, Advocates, and Law Enforcement Professionals: Recognizing and Reducing Risk Situations for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Dennis Debbaudt addresses the need of such guidance to law enforcement and states unequivocally, “Positive developments can take place when the law enforcement and autism communities collaborate to share information that helps police officers better understand the behavior of people they encounter in field situations, and helps children and adults with autism to become equipped to identify, understand, and react appropriately with police officers.” He adds that responding police officers may face a situation that will challenge their traditional training, instincts, and professional conduct when responding to a call that involves a person with autism. This is where a properly prepared school staff can be extremely helpful to responders by providing the right information to facilitate and speed the search.
Unfortunately, there are scarce policies among educational institutions or law enforcement agencies in the United States related to missing person risk assessments or missing child school policies, and even fewer targeting students with a high risk of elopement such as those diagnosed with Autism. Although there are several resources, tool kits, and guides available from organizations like NCMEC, Autism Speaks, and the National Autism Association, these guides and references have yet to be translated into good, comprehensive risk assessments for potential student elopement or the establishment of local, school-specific policy and procedures for a missing student generally and certainly not any that address the higher risk associated with children with ASD. Existing risk assessment tools and emergency management policies are broad, all-hazard planning documents and are typically focused on physical threats to the school such as active shooters, fire, natural threats such as earthquakes and storms, environmental hazards, etc. Many educators we have spoken to have confirmed there is no specific policy, procedure or training for staff pertaining to a student who elopes nor do staff practice what to do if any student wanders from the school grounds; such a policy and procedure based upon a comprehensive risk assessment with additional, specific guidance on at-risk children with an ASD and other risk factors, is greatly needed. This is especially true in areas where police response time may be delayed due to a school’s location or available resources, leaving the school on its own until first responders can arrive and crucial minutes tick by.
ORS and its partners have devised an integrated strategy to address this need which recognizes each school is unique with differing demographics, physical layout, and available resources. Our approach includes conducting an in-depth physical assessment of the school and its resources, including drone overflights and mapping, to identify risks and hazards as well as form strategies to mitigate that risk. We then work directly with school leadership and key staff to develop a school-specific procedure to follow when a student is discovered missing. This procedure includes pre-planned roles and responsibilities for staff, search strategies, coordination with law enforcement and parents, student profile forms and other important information important to assist police, and a tailored training program.
If you or your organization would like more details on our integrated strategies for missing children in general or our tailored program for schools, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.