It’s getting late. You texted and you called… many times. And still nothing. You reached out to her friends. No one has heard from her. You try her phone again. No answer. You call her family. Maybe she stopped by her parents’ house on the way home. Wrong again. Panic starts to set in. You drive to her work. Still no sign of her.
If you suspect your wife, or husband or parent or sibling or any other loved one, has gone missing, here are the top steps investigators and missing persons experts advise you to take as authorities work to track down your family member.
CONTACT POLICE: If you suspect someone in your family member has vanished, contact your local, county or state police immediately. Many people believe an adult needs to be missing for at least 24 hours before an investigation can begin, but authorities say that is untrue. There is no waiting period. If you suspect something is wrong -- for instance, if your father does not arrive home at his regular time around 6 p.m. and you cannot reach him -- contact authorities.
DO NOT DISTURB ROOMS/VEHICLES: Any information could help investigators in their search. Do not clean or move any objects in the victim’s bedroom, other parts of their home or their vehicle. Evidence, including fingerprints, must be collected so do not dust. You may be trying to help by sorting through your relative’s things, but those efforts could compromise the investigation.
PROVIDE PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Be prepared to provide responding officers with a current photograph of your missing relative. Know their current height and weight, as well as what clothes they were last seen wearing. Share with investigators physical descriptors like scars, birthmarks and tattoos. If you have any images of those identifiers, turn them over to police.
OFFER PHONE & SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS: Give law enforcement the victim’s cell phone number and, if applicable, turn over any phone records. Many family members have shared cell phone plans – giving authorities the account information saves time. Provide any user names for their social media accounts, including, but not limited to, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest and Foursquare. Many people opt to use a variation of their name as their login so make sure the spelling of the user name is clear to investigators.
VOLUNTEER MEDICAL INFORMATION: You should continue to hope for the best – that your loved one will return home safely, but be prepared for the worst. Provide police with a DNA sample. The victim’s toothbrush or a recently used bandage with dried blood could offer a sample, although there is no guarantee. A cheek swab from a family member is another option. Dental and medical records can also aid in the investigation, so collect the name and contact information of the victim’s health care providers. If you have fingerprint records, police want those too. Just like there are AMBER alerts for missing children, there are MEPA, or Missing Endangered Person Alerts for adults who are at special risk of harm or injury. Notify police of any medical conditions, physical or psychological, so they can determine if a MEPA alert is needed.
CONTACT THE MEDIA: Once a report is filed with police, reach out to local and national media outlets to request coverage. Law enforcement suggest families enlist an intermediary to act as a liaison have an intermediary speak to the press on their behalf. The middleman can handle media inquiries when you may be too distressed to take the calls and in certain cases, where foul play is suspected, the go-between may be better able to filter information, preventing details known only to investigators, the victim's family and possible suspects from going between police, relatives and media so information made public does not jeopardize the investigation. Periodically set up events or submit editorials to newspapers to keep the your loved one’s disappearance in the public eye.
ESTABLISH AN ONLINE PRESENCE: Make it as easy as possible for tipsters to volunteer information. Create an easy to find Facebook page or website to give the public an opportunity to share possible sightings or other details. Police caution, however, that family should not vet investigate tips on their own. Instead, funnel any and all leads to the appropriate authorities. Another warning: the Internet can bring out the worst in some people so be prepared for potentially hurtful comments.
MAINTAIN COMMUNICATION: Keep a list of pertinent contact information: the lead detective on the case, support groups offering assistance, etc. Understand that authorities want an open dialogue with the victim’s relatives so they will keep you informed whenever a solid lead emerges. You are welcome to check in with police, but do not phone so often that they are busy managing your calls instead of the investigation.
LET POLICE TAKE THE LEAD: Recognize that police are trained professionals with experience resolving missing persons cases and it is in the best interest of yourself and your missing loved one to let them take the reigns. If you learn any new details, or something occurred to you that you failed to mention previously, tell the investigating agency. Do not pursue leads on your own as you could compromise the investigation or put your own safety at risk.
REGISTER WITH NamUs: Once you have exhausted your local resources, seek out the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System at the UNT Health Science Center. As local investigators continue to work the case, NamUs will examine your loved one’s case for any possible gaps in information, work to fill the holes and offer guidance on how you can help ensure the file is as robust as possible.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: Easier said than done, we know. Seek out counseling, talk to your clergyman or a therapist. There are nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping families like yours, whether you’re in need of emotional support, advice on case management or want to raise awareness of your missing loved one. Here are few that may be able to help: Project Jason; The Kristen Foundation; The Center for Hope; Jon Francis Foundation; Outpost for Hope; CUE Center for Missing Persons; GINA for Missing Persons FOUNDation; The Doe Network; The Charley Project. Other agencies are dedicated to missing children, although many have information that could help regardless of your loved one’s age. Here are a few: National Runaway Safeline; Tommy Foundation; Team HOPE at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; Morgan Nick Foundation; Klaas Kids Foundation; Polly Klaas Foundation; Child Find of America; Laura Recovery Center for Missing Children.
Kevin Pulsifer and Roseanne Tabachnik contributed to this report.