'Please help bring them home'

Commissioner Colvin speaks to participants about what to do if a friend goes missing.

It's every parent’s worst nightmare. They lose sight of their child for a moment, and that moment stretches into minutes, hours, days. They are interviewed by police, swarmed by the media; the subject of intense scrutiny by the public. And as every moment passes, the pit of fear in their stomach grows, turns icy cold, and solidifies into a despair they cannot give in to.

In most cases, children are found quickly. The attention fades away, and life returns to normal. For some parents, however, the days stretch into weeks, months, and years, and they continue to wonder what has happened.

Police, too, are haunted by those children who remain missing. And each year on May 25, people around the world remember those children, and raise awareness to try to help bring them home.

The campaign sometimes brings moments of joy, where children missing for several years are identified because someone, somewhere, recognises a face and starts the process of reuniting families. Sometimes, that recognition leads to sadder outcomes, but gives parents the cold comfort of being able to grieve.

Today, as part of International Missing Children’s Day, the AFP released a video, supported by Channel Nine presenters, seeking public support to bring missing children home.

To mark International Missing Children’s Day, 30 young people from 13 primary schools attended the first-ever Missing Youth Forum at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.

Opening the forum, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin explained how young people could stay safe, and reduce the risk of becoming a missing person in the future.

Mr Colvin said there were many rewarding aspects about being a police officer but there was none more satisfying than helping find a family member who had gone missing.

The definition of a missing person in Australia is someone who is reported to police because their whereabouts is unknown and there are fears for their safety and welfare. Every year, Australian police get around 38,000 missing person reports. That’s one every 14 minutes. In 98 per cent of cases, the missing person is found safe and well within a week. But for the remaining two per cent, the agony of not knowing continues.

Today, Commissioner Andrew Colvin told the children at the forum, while they may think they’re “couch surfing,” staying with friends, squatting, sleeping rough or even running away; to police, they are considered missing.

“I know young people, in this digital age, face many more pressures than I did when I was your age. There was no such thing as cyber bullying back then,” Mr Colvin said. “The important thing is that we give you the tools and information you need to counter these threats.”

“It’s also important to know who to turn to, and where to go for help if you are feeling pressure, and that’s a big part of what today’s forum is about.

“I am often asked, ‘how long should you wait before reporting that someone you know is missing?’ The answer is simple. Report it to police immediately. There is no need to wait.”

The Commissioner said parents also had a role to play.

“Be engaged with your children’s life on social media and the internet, and make sure your kids know who to turn to if they are feeling pressured.”

Speaking to young Australians about missing children is helping police to prevent the number of missing person reports they receive.

“We targeted this year six group today because they are entering the most vulnerable age group,” Mr Colvin said. “Young people between the ages of 13 and 17 account for half of all the reports made to police. The good news is that the vast majority of people who go missing in Australia are located within days.”

There are many reasons why this group is most likely to account for so many missing person reports. Relationship breakdowns, family trouble, bullying at school, and mental health issues may play a role. But often it is because the child has not let a parent or responsible adult know they’ve gone to a friend’s house, or camping, or somewhere else.

So Commissioner Colvin spoke directly about how teens could ensure they’re not reported.

“Let your family and friends know what you are doing and where you are going, and let them know when you expect to return home.”

For those who are left behind, it is the not knowing that is most difficult. Sasoon Simonian knows only too well the impact of losing a loved one.

His 21-year-old brother, Sevak, went missing in October 2014. His car was found in a national park but there were no clues as to his whereabouts or exactly what had happened.

“From that day on we have struggled as a family. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not thinking about what has happened to my brother…it’s the not knowing that is most difficult to deal with,” Sasoon said.

He told the forum he was speaking out in the hope it might help find his brother, and, importantly, to help highlight the issue of missing people and the steps people can take to reduce the numbers who disappear.

Commissioner Colvin said it was his hope that those who attended the forum would return to their schools, better equipped to handle modern-day stresses and to share with their friends important information on the support they can seek and options available to them.

“We want these young people to leave today as future ambassadors for the cause of missing youth.”

The inaugural Missing Youth Forum was facilitated with the support of Kids Helpline, Headspace and ThinkUKnow.

Anyone with information relating to missing children is urged to contact their local police or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

To share the International Missing Children’s Day message with your networks, visit The National Missing Persons Coordination Centre webpage. Profiles of missing persons can also be viewed.

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