Sunday February 3, 2013
When a child goes missing
BY LISA GOH
What can you or your community do to keep your child safe?
HAVING a child go missing is probably every parent's worst nightmare.
Just the mere thought of it is enough to make Louise Ng, a mother of two, shudder.
“When I first heard the news about William (Yau) going missing, I was very troubled. I really felt for his parents, and I can identify with their agony. I even had trouble sleeping,” says Ng, whose two boys are at ages seven and three.
Ng has every reason to be concerned she lives in USJ, Subang Jaya, just next door to Putra Heights where Yau went missing.
“The incident practically happened in our own backyard. It really hit close to home. I told myself and my elder son that we had to do something to help the missing boy, in whatever way we could,” she says.
William, six, was reported missing on Jan 16 at Jalan Putra Mahkota, Putra Heights, Subang Jaya. He was said to have alighted from the family car to look for his parents who had gone into an electrical shop. Eight days later, his decomposed body was recovered near the jetty at Kampung Sungai Sireh in Port Klang.
His high-profile case is just one in a string of cases of missing children.
Last year, between January and October, 4,804 persons were reported missing, according to the Royal Malaysia Police website (www.rmp.gov.my). Of that, 2,332 were found, while 2,472 are still missing (826 males, and 1,646 females).
A total of 109 missing persons were below the age of 12, about 1,068 were between 13 and 17 years old, 1,111 were above 18 years old, and 184 cases were of unknown age groups.
Ng raises an interesting question: What can members of the public do when a child goes missing?
She wonders if it would be possible for residents' committees to organise search parties for missing children, especially if the children are from within their communities.
“I went to the Subang Jaya police station to ask them if there was any way I could help (on William's case) whether it was to contribute to raise the reward amount for information on the missing boy, sponsor more posters, support the police in their door-to-door search, or if there was anything we could do as a community.
“I wanted to help, to do something but I didn't know what to do. In the end, after talking with my cousin, we decided we could pray for the little boy, and so we started a prayer chain for him,” Ng says.
According to P. Nagasayee Malathy, executive director for Protect and Save The Children (an organisation which works towards building safer communities where children are protected from sexual abuse and exploitation), members of the public can encourage and support the child's family to lodge a police report, if that has not already been done, with accurate and appropriate information immediately.
“The public can also approach civil society organisations working on such issues for networking with enforcement agencies, and assistance in terms of intervention.
“People can also spread accurate information regarding the missing child to concerned individuals, groups or organisations to trace the child, and even check with nearby children's homes or shelters to see if they might be there,” she says.
Malathy adds that the community should work together in supporting and motivating the family of the missing child to help them cope with the stress and trauma.
Selangor police chief Deputy Comm Datuk Tun Hisan Hamzah agrees.
“When a child goes missing, it is very, very important that a police report is lodged. Information is vital for the police as it will determine the manner of the operation we carry out. Our priority is always the safety of the child,” he says.
However, he stresses that a case of a missing child must be distinguished from that of an abducted child.
“In the case of a missing child, where it is not known whether the child is missing or has been abducted, or if a child has gone missing in a mall, then yes, by all means, spread the word around so more people can look for the child,” he says.
“But if it is a case where a child has been clearly abducted or kidnapped, then it would not be wise to spread information out like that.”
His reason for it is that spreading the word out may jeopardise the safety of the victim.
“There is a very fine line we tread between wanting to disseminate information, and keeping the victim safe.”
Criminals, he says, always have their eyes and ears open to know what the authorities have got on them.
“If they find out the police knows their car make or licence plate number, they change cars. If they know the police are focusing on an area, they will move and try to conceal the victim.
“They're very good analysts. They're always analysing their own mistakes, or mistakes of their friends. They learn from it, and come up with better ways to cover their tracks. Dissemination of information doesn't necessarily work in every case,” he explains.
So what about search parties organised by a community? Or following the police on their door-to-door search?
“When the police are doing door-to-door search, we do not want the public to come in as it may create unnecessary problems. Police officers are trained for this, and when they search a house, they search very thoroughly even in washing machines and refrigerators,” DCP Tun Hisan says.
“There are also certain procedures to be followed. If the parents, relatives or friends want to follow, it might be more difficult for the police to focus on doing their job.
“But if members of the public want to set up their own search parties in open areas (where the child has gone missing) fields, parks, bushes that is not a problem.”
What is also important, he adds, is what parents can teach their children to do should they get separated from each other.
“For children who are older (eight and above), parents can show them where the information counters are on every floor, and teach them to go there for help or to wait for their parents there if they get separated.
“Always use the same entrance when you enter a mall, it makes the mall more familiar for them,” DCP Tun Hisan advises.
For younger children, Parents, a US-based parenting website (www.parents.com) has a few suggestions too.
> Teach your child to stay put: Don't teach them “don't talk to strangers”, but “don't go anywhere with anyone without asking for permission first”.
> Teach your child to call out using your real name: It will grab your attention better than “mummy”, and should they ever become lost, they can tell someone who their parents are.
“Predators are looking for the kid who is not drawing attention. The kid yelling for her mum is too much trouble,” the website says, quoting Samantha Wilson, a former police officer who founded kidproofusa.com.
> Teach your child to ask another mother for help: If the first two steps do not work, the next step is to ask for help. Approaching mothers with children would be the safest step, as preschoolers can't yet distinguish uniforms from other types of dark clothing.
And if the Malaysian public should come across a child looking lost in a mall or on the street, Malathy has two suggestions.
“Approach and talk to the child to see if the child is lost. If he/she is, then bring her to the nearest authority, or take the child to the police for protection and to trace the family.
“People can also call Childline (a 24-hour helpline for children in Malaysia) at 15999,” Malathy says.
With so many children still missing, Ng voices her hope as a parent: “I hope William's death can lead to a change in society, how we look for those children who are still missing, and also how we, as parents, care for our children and never take things for granted.”