Missing persons, missing data
Following on from Missing Persons Week last month, in this month’s guest editorial, David Jenkins provides a personal view on missing persons in Australia.
How do I start writing on a topic that’s intensely personal, that has affected my family for much of my life? An issue that is widespread yet is largely hidden from public view. Naturally as an actuary I start with the stats, or at least I try to.
Around 35,000 missing person reports are made in Australia each year. NSW Police defines a missing person as someone reported to police where fears exist for their safety or welfare. Thankfully 99.5% of missing persons are located, mostly within a week. However, there remain about 1,600 people in Australia who have been missing more than six months.
Data on Australian missing persons is patchy. Even a simple count of the number of people who go missing isn’t actually simple: police data is inconsistent, some people go missing more than once, and some groups are prone to underreporting; particularly the young, homeless, intellectually impaired, Indigenous Australians and LGTBI people. Some missing person reports omit key details, particularly when child abuse or domestic violence is involved. The lack of quality data impedes research and analysis.
“More than a quarter of missing persons have mental health problems. Persons over the age of 65 are more likely to go missing after becoming lost, suggesting the involvement of an age-related impairment.”
People go missing for a variety of reasons. Some people choose to go missing to escape or suicide. Others drift away. Yet others are involuntarily missing whether by abduction, accident, mental illness or homicide. In some countries, conflict and civil unrest is also a major driver.
Of those reported missing each year in Australia, around two thirds are young people. Teenagers aged 13-15 years are the highest risk group and girls consistently outnumber boys. Mostly they are runaways and are found at a friend’s home. However some teens are told to leave by a parent. Other missing young people are abducted, usually by someone known to them. Risk factors identified for young people going missing include “domestic violence, family conflict, child abuse, neglect, school problems such as bullying, problems with peers/teachers, illicit drug/alcohol use, mental health issues, racism and poor coping skills.”[i]
For missing adults, little statistical information is available. Mental health issues, alcohol, drugs, family dysfunction and gambling are key risk factors. Risk factors for missing adults who suicide include being male aged 41-65, married and/or with children, with stressors. Missing adult victims of foul play are typically female aged 18-25, single and without children, last seen in a public place, on a summer Saturday night, for whom being missing is out of character.
“The high number of reported missing persons makes it challenging for police to correctly identify those cases requiring a more urgent and intensive response.”
More than a quarter of missing persons have mental health problems. Persons over the age of 65 are more likely to go missing after becoming lost, suggesting the involvement of an age-related impairment. This is growing area of concern given demographics shifts in Australia.
The high number of reported missing persons makes it challenging for police to correctly identify those cases requiring a more urgent and intensive response. In making their assessment, police consider the person’s age, the likelihood they will harm themselves or others, and whether the behaviour is out of character.
Public awareness tends to focus on individual missing persons rather than the broader concept. Particular cases are highlighted by the Amber Alert system for abducted children at risk of harm, and police cooperation with television programs. Missing Persons Week, held in the first week of August, raises general community awareness, publicises recent cases and freshens the names and memories of the long-term missing. Some of those names were once high profile although most have since faded. Others never had much of a profile to begin with. They are all missed by those close to them.
How should you respond to a missing person? Remember that it’s not a crime to go missing; indeed some may be victims. If you know the whereabouts of a missing person, tell police. Don’t go directly to family or friends as the missing person may have escaped circumstances of which you are unaware. If someone you know goes missing don’t wait 24 hours to report it, particularly if disappearing is out of character.
For me, there is one particular missing person that personalises these various statistics and risk factors. Lynette Dawson was reported missing in 1982. Lyn lived on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, was a nurse in a children’s centre, a loving wife and devoted mother of two very young daughters when she vanished. She is also my mum’s sister – my aunt. Lyn’s disappearance has had ongoing deep effects on all those close to her, particularly her children, my cousins. Two coroners have declared Lyn dead, with a known person having committed an indictable offence. Lyn remains a missing person.
I hope none of you ever have someone you care for go missing. I hope you will keep your eyes open for the missing, and be a voice for those who can no longer speak for themselves.
If you have any information on a missing person call Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000 or your local Police.
Australian Federal Police: http://www.missingpersons.gov.au/
Australian Institute of Criminology http://www.aic.gov.au/crime_community/communitycrime/missingpersons.html
Biographical details of long-term missing: http://www.australianmissingpersonsregister.com/
and more recent missing https://www.facebook.com/austmissingpersons
[i] Henderson & Henderson 1998, quoted in “Trends and Issues in Criminal Justice No 353, Missing Persons in Australia” by Marianne James, Jessica Anderson and Judy Putt, Australian Institute of Criminology March 2008
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