What really happens behind the headlines, when children are just — gone? Get it’s Hayley Bogaard investigates the truth behind why children go missing
It happens all too often. We flick on the nightly news, check our Facebook feed on our lunch break or switch on the radio for our drive home and we’re hit with the news of a missing child.
And all too often we assume the worst. Words such as ‘abducted’, ‘paedophile’, ‘stranger’ are so willingly cried out.
In some cases it isn’t a word we cry, but a name.
We conjure an image of terror, hysteria and tragedy. The media feeds the sensationalism, running tender photos of a sweet little child in their school uniform or their favourite t-shirt, beaming brightly from our screens, punctuating the tragedy of the situation.
It’s heartbreaking, gut wrenching and terrifying.
But is it true?
More often than not, it isn’t. In fact, the number of times a child goes missing in Queensland as a result of abduction is extremely low.
They are not the scenes from the Hollywood blockbusters of unmarked white vans, weedy strange men and incorrigible vigilante heroes. They are not scenes of heartbroken parents sobbing at press conferences, pleading for the return of their baby.
Those scenes can be very real. And when they are, they permeate our lives, and we live the soul crushing heartache along with the family. We cry, we grieve, we demand answers.
But if it’s not at the hands of a depraved, perverted stranger, than why is it?
What really happens behind the headlines, when children are just — gone?
The truth is, the large majority of young people who go missing do so voluntarily. They are not abducted and they don’t meet with foul play, they simply run away.
According to Trish Halligan, Team Leader in the AFP’s National Missing Persons Coordination Centre, “there are specific risk factors associated with young people going missing, which are particularly prevalent in the 13-17 years of age cohort, such as domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, school problems such as bullying, drug and alcohol use, mental health issues and poor coping skills.”
She explains that often those young people go missing voluntarily as a means of escaping from the pressures of their lives. More often than not, they are found quite quickly at a friend’s house or familiar location.
Detective Senior Sergeant Damien Powell of the Queensland Missing Persons Unit highlights that in Queensland, within the 14-16 year age range, missing girls outnumber boys almost two to one.
“We see a significantly higher number of girls reported missing in this age bracket than boys, which is likely a result of the emotional and social maturity of girls developing faster than boys.” he explains.
But what about in children under the age of 12?
Again, in the majority of cases, it is more often a result of the child voluntarily leaving their environment, rather than being forcibly removed.
Detective Powell explains that with younger children, it is “often a behavioural response; they are hiding, fearful or simply in an unfamiliar environment and those children are usually located quite quickly.”
He explains that regardless of the suspected circumstances surrounding a child going missing, it is always critical to locate them quickly due to the increased risk factors that are present. On the Gold Coast, environmental conditions such as the large number of waterways and busy roads are factors that are taken into close consideration by police.
Another circumstance that sees children under the age of 10 reported missing occurs in cases where children are removed from their family home by Child Services and placed in foster care. Given their vulnerable age and undeveloped cognitive sense, they don’t understand the situation and act on an instinctual response to find their parents.
So, while the large majority of missing children do, in fact, go missing voluntarily, and are located long before the story makes it to our newsfeeds, there are cases where the circumstances are not so innocuous.
Not such a stranger danger
Despite the mantra of ‘stranger danger’ being drilled into us from a young age, it is very rare that a stranger takes a child. In fact, in most cases, it is the people who are closest to the child that are responsible for their disappearance: their parents.
It can be as simple as a miscommunication. One parent collects the child from school early and forgets to inform the other. One parent gives permission for a sleepover at a friend’s house that the other wasn’t aware of.
But at other times, it is more convoluted, a result of an unsavoury custody or family dispute. One parent feels that they are not provided adequate time with the child and choses to rectify that without the consent of the other. Or, perhaps, they have had a conflict with the other parent and take the child out of spite.
In the cases of custody disputes, the situation is most often treated as a parental abduction, irrelevant whether the person taking the child has lawful custody or not. In some instances, a parent will employ the services of a private investigator to assist in locating the child or gathering information about the child’s living conditions.
Guy Streeter, a private investigator with Timberline Investigations on the Gold Coast, sees the dark side of parental disputes all too often and explains that in those cases, they aren’t generally criminal matters but are the result of Family Court proceedings.
“Often times, one parent is trying to get sole custody of the child because the other parent is neglecting the child or is not in a suitable environment to raise the child,” he explains.
“Also to this, sometimes the reason is because the parent with full custody of the child is claiming that they do not work and need a significant amount for child support.
“Often they will leave the child with the grandparents or friend while they go to work and collect a cheque for work and child support as well.”
But sometimes, it can be an arduous and extended process, long before it even reaches the steps of the Family Court.
“We have been brought in on one case involving the Australian Federal Police, that had run cold,” Guy recounts.
“The mother had run away with her daughter and both had been missing for a couple of years and we were employed to make enquires and provide further leads.
“While that didn’t lead anywhere, both the mother and daughter were found recently by the AFP safe.”
In the cases of parental abductions, police have immediate access to information about the suspect and can usually locate and recover the child quickly and safely whether it is voluntarily, or through the issue of a Recovery Order by the Family Court.
But when the unthinkable does occur and a stranger takes the child, the job of the police is made infinitely more challenging.
Despite all the statistics and research that comfort us against the throes of stranger abduction, there are a small number of times when a parent’s worst nightmare is played out. A child is taken by a stranger and disappears without a trace.
While it is not an occurrence that is completely absent from our society, human and sex trafficking is far less prevalent than it is in other countries. In fact, in many cases of Australian missing children being located overseas, it is the parent or family who has taken the child to be married or employed.
The motivations behind stranger abductions are varying and intrinsic to the individual responsible.
Earlier this year, a 12-year-old Gold Coast boy was abducted from outside his Mudgeeraba home, allegedly dragged into a SUV kicking and screaming. The police were quick to release details of the boy and the SUV to the media and a keen-eyed member of the public, who had seen the media reports, spotted the car used in the schoolboy’s abduction and phoned police.
As a result, the boy was located the following day in Grafton, NSW. The police said he ‘suffered scratches consistent with being bound’ but did not suffer any major injuries.
It was revealed shortly after that the abduction was an extortion attempt, with the family ordered to pay a significant ransom for the boy’s return. Police revealed that there had been a number of personal loans between the boy’s father and a man of Chinese heritage before the demands for money were made.
The child, in this case, was nothing more than an innocent pawn in a vindictive business arrangement. And while this time, the child was returned, not all cases end so well.
Just three minutes
On December 7 2003, thirteen-year-old Daniel Morcombe pulled the front door of his family’s Sunshine Coast home closed behind him, calling to his twin brother that he was catching the bus to nearby Sunshine Plaza Shopping Centre to get a haircut and shop for Christmas presents for his family.
He waited patiently for the 1.35pm scheduled bus service, but it never arrived. The bus had broken down, only 750 metres from where Daniel waited and it wasn’t until 2.15pm that the replacement bus approached. Daniel signalled but the driver, under instructions not to stop, continued down the road. He radioed for a second bus to collect those left stranded.
Just three minutes later, that second bus reached Daniel’s stop but found it deserted. Daniel Morcombe had vanished without a trace.
It had taken just three minutes.
The death of Daniel Morcombe needs no introduction. It was one of the most extensively investigated crimes in Queensland history and gripped the Australian public at every heartbreaking twist and turn.
The investigation spanned eight years with many leads and theories running cold. It wasn’t until August 2011, following an extensive undercover police operation, that a man was taken into custody and charged with the murder.
His name was Brett Peter Cowan.
A week after his arrest, two shoes and three human bones were found at a search site in the Glass House Mountains. Forensic testing confirmed that they were the remains of Daniel Morcombe. At the conclusion of the investigation, seventeen bones had been found including a rib, hip, leg, arm and vertebrae. They were all confirmed as belonging to Daniel Morcombe using DNA from his toothbrush to make the match.
In February 2014, Brett Peter Cowan stood trial for murder, indecently dealing with a child under the age of 16 and improperly dealing with a corpse. In March 2013, he was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to life in prison.
The iconic Spiderman
Ask most little boys what they want to be when they grow up and many will gleefully reply, “Spiderman!” They will run around their backyards, shooting pretend spider webs from their wrists and fighting imaginary villains in the name of justice. They wear the iconic blue and red costume proudly and valiantly.
But in September 2014, an image of a playful little boy, beaming up at the camera, dressed in the iconic Spiderman suit was splashed across our television screens, flooded our Facebook feeds and stared up at us from the front page of every newspaper.
The joyous image quickly became synonymous with heartache and sickening terror.
It was a photograph of three-year-old William Tyrrell, taken just minutes before he disappeared without a trace.
On September 11, 2014, William Tyrrell played hide and seek in the front yard of his grandmother’s home in Kendall, NSW while his grandmother and mother watched on. His mother went inside to make a cup of tea, laughing as William ran around the corner of the house, imitating a lion’s “roar,” his little clawed hands at the ready.
It would be the last time she heard his voice.
His mother became worried when, five minutes later, she had not heard him again. The family searched the home and the surrounding streets, door-knocking at the neighbouring houses. No one had seen or heard him.
At 10:56pm, his mother called 000 and reported him missing.
The response was swift and extensive. Two hundred volunteers searched overnight, hundreds of people combed rugged terrain around the home and police divers searched waterways and dams. Specialist police, including the Sex Crimes Squad, immediately formed Strike Force Rosann. Motorcycles and helicopters were brought in to search. No trace was found of William Tyrrell.
The Australian public followed every step of the story, agonising with his family. The haunting image of little William in his beloved Spiderman suit became a permanent fixture in our everyday lives. The nation hoped, prayed and cried with the Tyrrell family.
William’s family faced extensive criticism and scrutiny in the media. William was in foster care at the time of his disappearance and legal reasons bound by the legislation prevented them from being identified publicly or holding any press conferences for the purpose of appealing publicly about their missing son. In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the fact he disappeared while in state care with foster parents was “one of legitimate public interest” and the family were finally able to speak out.
However, as quickly as the leads developed, they seemed to run cold. The media reported descriptions of two vehicles of interest that were spotted in the area around the time of his disappearance. There were theories of paedophile rings thrown around. A local washing machine repairman was thrust into the spotlight as a suspect. But at every turn, the trail seemed to run cold.
Since his disappearance, there have been over 1,070 reported sightings of William Tyrrell. Crime Stoppers have received a record number of over 2,800 calls. Police have interviewed over 1,000 people in connection with the case. They have identified 690 persons of interest. And yet, the beaming little Spiderman remains unfound.
In June 2018, police announced a large-scale forensic search in bushland around Kendall to be conducted by search experts from the Public Order and Riot Squad.
The Tyrrell family and the Australian public hold on to any hope they can.
But this is not a movie
It’s a scene straight from a Hollywood blockbuster. A young girl rides her pink and white bike in an empty store car park. A man in a black pickup truck pulls up, forces her off her bike and stuffs her into the cab of the truck.
Five days later, her body is found in a rain-swollen creek. Her throat is cut.
In this movie, justice would prevail. There would be a rugged, vigilante hero played by Liam Neeson, a dramatic car chase played out in front of a green screen and a healthy serving of justice to leave the audience suitably satisfied.
But this is not a movie. There is no Liam Neeson and no special effects. And there is certainly no serving of justice.
This is the very real story of the abduction and murder of nine-year-old US girl, Amber Hagerman.
To this day, Amber’s murder remains unsolved. But in a bittersweet twist of fate, the case has had two diametrically opposed outcomes; one of heartbreak and one of hope.
Following their daughter’s murder, Amber’s parents called for tougher laws governing kidnappers and sex offenders. Throughout their campaign, it was highlighted the need for expedited efforts by police to locate abducted children and how the media could facilitate those efforts. Much like the National Weather Service could interrupt broadcast to inform the public of a severe weather warning, the same could be done for an abducted child.
In 1996, the AMBER alert system, named after Amber Hagerman, went nationwide in the US. The system has since been adopted in countries around the world and, in May 2005, the Queensland government was the first state in Australia to implement the system.
An AMBER alert is a process that involves the urgent broadcast of relevant information through the media in relation to an abducted child or high-risk missing child.
The alert is intended for time–critical situations in which a child under the age of eighteen years is reasonably suspected to have been abducted, or there appears to be an imminent risk of death or serious harm to the child. It is irrelevant whether the person suspected of having taken the child has lawful custody of the child.
Under the system, police will urgently contact the media with relevant information regarding the description of the child, the offender and details of any vehicle involved. Television and radio stations will break into normal transmission with a dedicated alert tone and regularly broadcast these details until the alert is cancelled, instead of waiting for the next news bulletin.
But perhaps one of the most powerful tools at investigator’s disposal is Facebook. In 2017, the AFP National Missing Persons Coordination Centre announced a national rollout of the Facebook AMBER Alert system, which works to amplify existing broadcast channels to issue an immediate, 24-hour alert on Facebook to people who are in the area where the child went missing. The Queensland Police Service were one of the earliest adopters of the system before it was rolled out nationally.
Since the AMBER alert system was launched across Australia, it has been engaged in six different cases. In each of those six cases, the child has been recovered. Interestingly, each case was a matter of parental abduction.
From the gut wrenching injustice of Amber Hagerman’s death has come the hope of saving many more children’s lives.
A good defence
As the saying goes, the best offence is a good defence.
In the cases of teenagers, establishing an open line of communication and discussing any distressing situations or trouble at home is the best measure to ward off the event of the child running away. In these cases, prevention is the best strategy. Parents should also keep an eye out for signs such as reclusive behaviour, deteriorating academic performance and personality or mood changes.
Detective Powell says the best thing the community can do is to protect children is to be aware.
“The best thing the community can do is to be vigilant,” he says.
“If you have someone else’s child with you, ensure that their parents are aware and have given permission.”
And in the case of an AMBER alert, he stresses the importance of the community’s cooperation.
“The public should check their home and close surroundings in areas that a child may be able to hide,” he explains.
“And if they see anything matching the descriptions given by police, contact them immediately.”
Trish Halligan, Team Leader at the AFP’s National Missing Persons Coordination Centre adds that the community should follow their state police service on Facebook and says if they do come across a missing persons report in their newsfeed, “don’t scroll past it if they don’t recognise the person”
“While they might not recognise the person, they might have been at that location or seen something that may help,” she says.
“It will only take a few seconds to read the report and the smallest piece of information could really help the police in their investigations.”
So, next time your stomach drops reading the latest headline of a missing child, rather than gathering the mob with lighted torches and pitchforks and cry for another tragedy, take a moment to consider your surroundings and report any piece of information, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
While the child may be gone, hope is not.