When dealing with missing persons cases, there are some issues that have always left me wondering whether we could do better. The field – all the professionals with a little expertise in the area know this and are constantly reminded by the authors on the subject – is heavily under-researched and the means are often quite scarce. This would tentatively answer the doubt with a huge “yes, we could do better” but how? I would like to discuss a few issues that may prove to be points for improvement – issues which may at times be obvious to the professionals, but that the general reader may not be aware of, and issues that may be of particular interest for professionals, too.

Numbers and Statistics

Let’s begin at the beginning: figures. Without numbers, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the phenomenon. I usually employ two sets of data, one Italian and one British, to make a few points. These are the sets I am more acquainted with, and they pose no additional problems when compared. As the two countries have a similar population and similar national parameters, like territory extension or composition of population, there is no need to work on percentages and proportions. And if, up to a few months ago, it was a comparison between European countries, nowadays it gives the chance to compare an EU country with a non-EU one, as meagre a benefit as that can be.

In Italy, the XXII Report on Missing Persons, and Agensir (Perrotta, 2020; AGENSIR, 2020), state that in 2019, 15,044 people have gone missing. The table on page 10 of the report breaks the numbers in 7,935 people with Italian citizenship and 7,109 people with foreign citizenship. It is the age-related number though, that gives a worrisome perspective: out of 15,000 people, 8,331 are underage, 947 are 65+ and 5,766 are adults (Perrotta, 2020, p. 10) – the numbers are not split into further age groups. Another figure of concern is the number of people still missing. Out of 15,000, more than a third – 5,198 – were not located (Perrotta, 2020, p. 11). Further on, we see that the data on outstanding missing incidents varies greatly between missing foreigners, whose location is successful only in the 43.04% of cases, and missing nationals, with a 85.51% success rate which is, though, pejorative of the 2007 figure by 11% (Perrotta, 2020, p. 13). The aggregated data in Italy, recorded from January 1st, 1974, up to the end of 2019 is that 245,012 people have been reported missing (Perrotta, 2020, p. 9) and that at present time, 61,036 people are still to be located (Perrotta, 2020, p. 14). Again, the numbers are split according to nationality – 9,959 Italians and 51,077 foreigners – and macro age groups – 44,399 minors, 15,012 adults and 1,625 65+ senior citizens. Among the underage missing individuals, the report highlights a problem with unaccompanied minors, whose trend in disappearing is slowly abating if compared to the “spike years” of 2016/2017 (Perrotta, 2020, p. 19), but keeps being relevant and of serious concern. This sets the picture of the situation in Italy as of December 31, 2019.

In the UK, numbers are “a bit” different. The usual source for official information is the UK Missing Persons Unit (UKMPU) report, issued yearly by the National Crime Agency (NCA), but the latest one dates 2019 and records the 2016/2017 data (UKMPU, 2019). Although the 2-year gap is customary, this does not leave much in the way of official information on recent trends, which seem, by other sources to be constantly on the rise, having reached in 2018 365,000 episodes per year, and 180,000 people going missing in a 12-month period (Missing People, 2018), against the 321,573 missing incidents/records/investigations[1] registered in 2016/2017 and the 165,573 individuals who have gone missing in the same 12-month period (UKMPU, 2019). These numbers allow focus on an issue that the Italian data do not investigate, at least not publicly: the repeat missing incidents. According to the UKMPU report (2019, p. 6), the national ratio of episodes per person going missing is 1.9:1. However, when dealing with people missing from care, the ratio goes up to 4.8:1, most of these (83.9%), minors (UKMPU, 2019, p. 16). The split of aggregated data is performed by gender – 53.9% of male individuals, 45.2% of female individuals, 0.1% of transgender individuals and a 0.8% of individuals of unknown gender – and age groups according to gender (UKMPU, 2019, p. 8). Yet, data are sometimes hard to track from page to page, as records are supplied using different sources, as specified in the footnote on page 8 (UKMPU, 2019). Mirroring the Italian data, there seems to be an issue with minors disappearing from care – unaccompanied minors and minors displaced from families alike – while, unlike in Italy the report records a prevalence of missing individuals of white, North-European ethnicity, although it does not state whether their nationality is domestic or foreign.

Differences in recording and transnationality of cases

By simply looking at the figures here proposed, there are a few issues that can be identified. The first is that the numerical gap between the two sets seems astonishing. The UK yearly numbers exceed the total Italian data of the past 50 years. Therefore, the first fact that one may try to ascertain is whether there is a difference in the way missing incidents are recorded. That’s what I did and found that up to 2007, for example, law enforcement agencies in Italy had no duty to record intentional missing episodes (Camera dei Deputati, 2015, p. 1627). This surely accounts for part of the difference in data, and may explain why in recent years there has been a sensible increase in numbers of missing incidents and a decrease in the number of located people. When the disappearance is intentional, people may be more willing to “stay gone” and are therefore more difficult to trace. Reading and comparing numbers is always a healthy exercise and may provide good answers and good questions on the observed phenomena. Yet, this reading brings concern when dealing with the bigger picture. Given that there are substantial differences in numbers and therefore, possibly, in the way these are recorded, and given the fact that an important part of these numbers in Italy are represented by individuals with a foreign citizenship, for instance, one point of debate would be on the need to standardize at EU level the way incidents are registered and the way data are recorded at the very least. Working on a synthesis of “best-practices” from all Member States is not only desirable, but necessary. It is even more so when thinking that missing persons cases can more easily become transnational. With an increased ease of movement throughout Europe, or the world, the phenomenon of transnational (parental) abductions or intentional disappearances has become a trend and law enforcement would require an operational standard that could apply everywhere in the EU.

What is “going missing” in legal terms?

Why do I raise this point? The reason is simple. Going missing, when one is adult and has no “pending bills” with the law, is usually not a crime. One instance is the duty of a tutor – a parent, a caregiver, a family member – to ascertain the well-being of a minor or a person with diminished capacity or health issues, even when the disappearance is intentional. Another instance is the right of an adult to leave voluntarily. That makes it more difficult – limits and boundaries of national legal systems[2] and of the related right to privacy sometimes impend – to follow the traces of individuals who have crossed their national borders. It is true that there are national Points of Contact (POCs) who are appointed with the task to coordinate transnational investigations. However, this leaves out the outliers in the system. I am referring to some private investigations and I feel that this is an important point to focus on. When disappearances become long-outstanding, police investigations become “cold cases” and lose the priority of law enforcement. Families who still have to locate the missing member often resort to charities, like Missing People in the UK, or Associazione Penelope in Italy, or to private investigators. Depending on the financial resources of the families, they might incur in people who “cost less” but are not certified or do not carry authorisations to move transnationally. They may be simply not aware – again, a problem of national standards in order to operate professionally – of the laws and requirements to move an investigation across borders. Yet, some of these investigations may uncover important criminal rings, dealing with human trafficking, (underage) prostitution or paedophilia, organ harvesting, or organised crime to cite a few. A private investigation national POC, an association for example, would ensure that this type of enquiries could be performed according to national standards and that the proceedings, where applicable, could be acquired directly by national law enforcement agencies to open cases without delay. Cases which, in turn, will properly stand once in a court of law, with the added bonus that the investigation will not have to be “repeated”, especially once the criminal operation has been “perturbed” by the recent private enquiry.

Information, speed of action and risk assessment

A synthesis of “best practices”, though, could result in an improvement in another area: retrieving information. Based on what is available online and is of public access, the form recording a missing persons incident in Italy deals mainly with biometric and demographic information (Ministero Dell’Interno). This form matches the information contained in the Ri.Sc. system (Direzione Centrale per gli Affari Generali della Polizia di Stato, 2014) – a database which in turn allows to match missing persons details to unidentified corpses – but information is fed into the system 72 hours after the first report. I second with passion the desire expressed by (former) Extraordinary Commissioner Perrotta (2020), to evaluate other systems, like COMPACT Misper (UK Government), already in use in the UK by more than 20 forces. There are several benefits coming from a system shared among forces and with other agencies (Social Assistance, Health and Mental Health facilities, Education, and Independent Agencies like charities, for example). The first and foremost is the speed at which information can be gathered and distributed to the relevant forces involved in the search. Even when the report of a missing episode comes from family members, they may not be aware of the full list of medications a person is taking – people have a right to privacy on medical issues. There are also instances in which the report of a missing person may cover a crime. A system granting access to other agencies may prove as a first feedback in order to perform Statement Validity Analysis of the reporter, should the doubt arise.

Moreover, if retrieving information from other sources is time-consuming – and professionals know how pivotal the first few hours after a disappearance can be – it is also resources-consuming. Shalev-Greene and Pakes (2013) for example, have estimated the cost of a single investigation performed by Police in a range of expenditure between 1,300£ and 2,400£. This varies according to the risk-assessment of the event and the length of the investigation – I do not believe that in other countries the proportional cost would dramatically differ. Given the numbers in the UK, but also in Italy, a multi-agency-accessible system would cut down on time and spread costs more evenly with other agencies, resulting in a huge benefit for the missing individual – reducing the risks to come to harm or engage in criminal activities, which increase with time, especially when it comes to minors who have no legal ways to earn the money needed to fulfil their basic necessities – but also for society.

Enhancing analytical capacity

A “best-practice-based” shared system may offer other advantages. The non-biometric record of risk factors and vulnerabilities, as a matter of fact, allows to perform a more precise risk assessment of the event, clearly identifiable by all the agencies having access and which can be updated very quickly without the need to call for briefings and/or starting snowballing chains of calls in order to put every agency involved up to speed (again, time-consuming and sometimes mistake-prone). It would also allow tracking of the history of an individual that is extemporary. It can even expose a pattern, where there is one: a trend within an area, within an age group, within gender – individuals sharing a specific vulnerability that would maybe spell the habits /preferences of a predator, or a social problem like bullying/online blackmailing in an identifiable environment, or even political or religious radicalization within social groups, for example.

More than this – which is already a lot – it would give research fresh input. Rather than the “perfunctory” analysis of age groups and gender, this would allow qualitative evaluation of other factors, investigated through statistical tools like Chi Square, or Jaccard Index, to mention a couple. I used the Action Systems Model and Investigative Psychology in one of my studies, leading to some evidence that it could improve risk assessment, especially in repeat cases. This addition in recording would bring forth ample progress into the field of research. If there is one thing that has always nagged at me, in fact, is the reason why people decide to go missing. We all tend to face rough patches in life, when we experience the need to “just leave”. Some people do it. Some people don’t. Going missing voluntarily is at times a maladaptive coping mechanism, sometimes a reaction to society which does nothing to prevent harm in individuals experiencing certain types of abuse, and sometimes a cry for help that states that something is wrong when the ability to communicate the cognitive dissonance within an individual is impaired, either by external or internal factors. Sometimes, it’s also a collateral event, while engaging in other – less legitimate – activities, and I say this without passing judgement: the phenomenon of going missing is often a litmus test that shows where society is at its weakest. The reasons for going missing (Biehal, Mitchell, & Wade, Lost from View, 2003) are so many that the only way to start investigating these in depth – and thus reduce or prevent the phenomenon – is a qualitative analysis of the stories, the factors, and the vulnerabilities, implying the further possibility to detect patterns of movements and prioritization of search the way, for example, Perkins, Roberts & Feeney (The UK Missing Person Behaviour Study, 2011) have theorised regarding missing incidents in less anthropic environments.

Privacy issues

There is one additional point that I would like to make, on the benefits of a shared system. It can prevent unnecessary leakage of personal or sensitive information. When communication between the different agencies “happens” within a preferential medium that ensures discretion and confidentiality, there is a reduced need for other channels, like social media or the press. These means could be resorted to only when the disappearance becomes longer-outstanding or if there were substantial risk of harm for the individual. One issue that greatly concerns me in the distribution of personal information regarding missing incidents, is that a non-professional, non-mentored-by-law-enforcement use of the media may eventually turn to be a long-time sentence for the missing individuals and their families. Society, in general terms, needs more specific training on this theme. The main message that needs to pass is that the sensitive details and pictures of missing people are circulated without their consent – of course, they are missing – and it should be consequently performed cum grano salis, observing the limitations imposed by national laws and GDPR well in mind. Diffusion of information should be concerted and mediated by professionals, possibly assigning an officer liasing with families/tutors to manage communications, of tragic news especially. At times, though, relatives or friends share information on social media or with the press by own initiative. Although they mean well, this may result in altering the behaviour of the subjects to be located if the disappearance is intentional and they retain access to the media, or in altering the behaviour of the abductor if the disappearance is unintentional and the fact becomes public – in both cases, this multiplies the risk factors for the missing persons. That is why the risk-vs-benefit evaluation should be performed by professionals only.

However, even when the person is located and all has ended, an unfiltered circulation of information may be “hard to kill” on the net. This may be limited by spreading the good habit of sharing posts and articles without copying or screenshotting them. These posts could then be modified at the source once the person has been located, deleting personal information and pictures, and replacing the original text with a thank-you message or a “found” label, as professionals already do. Or sharing links to articles that the online newspapers could archive in different repositories once the missing incidents have had an outcome, thus breaking the link used by the readers without, at the same time, losing the piece. This would avoid individuals being haunted by the memory that the net retains of their incident, reducing the risk of a repeat episode, and/or without causing the families renewed pain should the outcome have proven fatal. It would also ensure the families the time to heal in private. There is a whole area of literature, often neglected, that deals with the difficulties to “mend” the familial relationship with the located individual, or the grief of a tragic epilogue (Holmes, When the Search is Over: Reconnecting Missing Children and Adults, 2014; Holmes, Living in Limbo, 2008; Parr & Stevenson, Families Living with absence: Searching for missing people, 2013).

So, can we do better?

I think we can always do better until a problem is solved, therefore my answer would be a resounding, if not a little utopian, “yes”. Yet, even when evaluating objectively what can be done, I hope that this piece shows that “doing better” for a huge number of people could be an achievable goal by making even small, albeit substantial, changes to the way the theme of missing persons is tackled within society. It goes from a small modification in social-media usage, to the recording of a number of risk factors and vulnerabilities at least on paper, to the creation and usage of a multi-agency-shared system to register and pass information, to the transnational standardization of procedures and best practices. All these interventions require a different amount of effort on the part of society, law enforcement, and national governments. But all of these, with a long-term strategy, are definitely within practical reach.

Reference List

AGENSIR. (2020, February 20). Persone Scomparse: in Italia nel 2019 presentate 15044 denunce. Oltre il 55% riguarda minori. Tratto il giorno July 08, 2020 da Agensir: https://www.agensir.it/quotidiano/2020/2/20/persone-scomparse-in-italia-nel-2019-presentate-15-044-denunce-oltre-il-55-riguarda-minori

Associazione Penelope Lombardia. (s.d.). Penelope Lombardia Homepage. Tratto da Penelope Lombardia: https://www.penelopelombardia.org/

Biehal, N., Mitchell, F., & Wade, J. (2003). Lost From View. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Camera dei Deputati. (2015). XVII Legislatura – Disegni di Legge e Relazioni – Documenti Doc XXXVIII, n. 3, Tomo 1. Rome: Camera Dei Deputati. Tratto da https://www.camera.it/lavori

Direzione Centrale per gli Affari Generali della Polizia di Stato. (2014). Sistema Ri.Sc. (Ricerca Scomparsi). Rilascio Nuova Versione. Roma: Ministero dell’Interno.

Holmes, L. (2008). Living in Limbo. London: Missing People.

Holmes, L. (2014). When the Search is Over: Reconnecting Missing Children and Adults. London: Missing People.

McCann, K. (2012). Madeleine. London: Transworld Publishers.

Ministero dell’Interno. (s.d.). Linee Guida per Favorire la Ricerca di Persone Scomparse. Tratto da Governo Italiano – Ministero dell’Interno: https://www.interno.gov.it/it/amministrazione-trasparente/disposizioni-generali/atti-generali/atti-amministrativi-generali/direttive-e-altri-documenti/linee-guida-favorire-ricerca-persone-scomparse

Ministero Dell’Interno. (s.d.). Ricerca Persone Scomparse. Tratto da Governo Italiano – Ministero dell’Interno: https://www.interno.gov.it/it/ricerca-persone-scomparse

Missing People. (2018). Key Information. Tratto il giorno July 08, 2020 da Missing People: https://www.missingpeople.org.uk/about-us/about-the-issue/research/76-keyinformation2.html

Parr, H., & Stevenson, O. (2013). Families Living with absence: Searching for missing people. Glasgow: The University of Glasgow.

Perkins, D., Roberts, P., & Feeney, G. (2011). The Uk Missing Person Behaviour Study. The Centre for Search and Research; Mountain Rescue.

Perrotta, G. (2020). XXII Relazione Semestrale Del Commissario Straordinario del Governo per le Persone Scomparse. Ministero dell’Interno, Dati e Statistiche. Rome: Ministero dell’Interno. Tratto il giorno July 08, 2020 da https://www.interno.gov/it/stampa-e-comunicazione/dati-e-statistiche/relazioni-periodiche-commissario-straordinario-governo-persone-scomparse

Polizia Di Stato. (2010). Persone Scomparse: al Via il Sistema Informatico Ri.Sc. Tratto da Polizia di Stato: https://www.poliziadistato.it/articolo/persone-scomparse-al-via-il-sistema-informatico.ri.sc.

Shalev-Greene, K., & Pakes, F. (2013, December 5). The Cost of Missing Persons Investigations: Implication for Current Debates. Policing, 8(1), 27-34. doi:10.1093/police/pat036

UK Government. (s.d.). COMPACT – Missing Persons Case Management. Tratto da Gov.UK Digital Marketplace: https://www.digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk/g-cloud/services/553939035044650

UK Missing Persons Unit. (2019). Missing Persons Data Report 2016/2017. London: NCA. Tratto il giorno July 08, 2020 da https://www.missingpersons.police.uk/en-gb/resources/downloads/missing-persons-statistical-bulletins


[1] As per NCA report: the different “label”, according to Country procedures within the UK accounts for similar processes but “not directly comparable” (UK Missing Persons Unit, 2019, p. 5) among one another.

[2] Let’s think of the Maddie McCann case.  According to her mother’s account, the Portuguese Police cannot share even with the relatives of a victim the details and progresses of an open investigation (McCann, Madeleine, 2012)