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The Missing Among Us

Surprise is a good thing in writing. It means you’re learning, that you’re debunking myths and challenging your expectations and assumptions. In The Missing Among Us I dive into the mysterious world of missing persons, from the Australian bush to missing children, cults and the Stolen Generations. Over the years I spent working on The Missing Among Us I learned many surprising things about missing persons, here is a quick taste of some of these lessons.

1.     The sheer scale of missing persons cases is huge.

38,000 people are reported missing each year in Australia. That’s over 100 per day. By all accounts, missing persons numbers are underreported for a range of reasons. Charlie Hedges, an investigator I spoke to, said that one of the reasons is that when someone (especially a young person) goes missing repeatedly, often those around them won’t report it – the idea being that it’s a bad habit, or they’ll come back home when they feel like it. In fact, as someone goes missing more often, as Charlie says, ‘they go into increasingly risky situations’.

The Missing Among Us has a lot of statistics, and through the processes of editing and getting feedback, every time I’ve been asked to double check I haven’t made a typo on one, they’re far larger than expected. For instance, missing persons is the single most expensive area of policing in the UK: over £700 million is spent annually handling the 1000 missing persons reports that are filed every day.

One of the ways that the scale of missing persons cases manifests is in our popular culture. This was another surprise for me, realising that a lot of my favourite books, films, TV shows, and video games strongly featured missing persons cases, which wasn’t something I’d registered before. Another manifestation is our own experiences. Chances are, whether you’ve thought about it in these terms of not, you’ve been missing or know someone who has.

2.     Don’t wait 24 hours to make a missing persons report.

The most damaging myth about missing persons is that you have to wait until they’ve been missing for 24 hours before reporting it. It’s actually important to report as early as possible, as soon as someone’s absence raises concern. Investigators have a concept, ‘the end of the world’: in missing persons cases, the end of the world is considered to be where someone could be, and with every hour it expands significantly. Reporting early limits the size of the search that has to be undertaken.

3.     To be missing, you have to be missed.

In order to be counted as missing, you need to be reported missing. But not everyone is reported missing; not everyone’s absence is noticed. In 2005, a nine-year old girl, Jessica Lunsford, went missing in the US and in the search, her local town dragged a lake. They found a body and when they went to identify it, they realised it wasn’t Jessica’s. ‘We have confirmed it’s not our girl … and for that we are very happy,’ said the Sheriff. They had found a missing body though; they had found a person but did not recognise their personhood or the gravity of that discovery. This sadly happens often – certain cases get centred and others forgotten.

The distribution of attention is politicised. Certain missing persons get more coverage in the media (this is called ‘the missing white girl syndrome’), and attract more concern, big searches, and large rewards for information. Researching The Missing Among Us made me more aware of the huge diversity of missing persons cases, and made me want to raise awareness for those missing persons you’ve never heard about alongside prominent cases.

Very occasionally, the opposite phenomenon will occur: someone will go missing and there will be concern for the case, but the missing person doesn’t want to be found. People can choose to go missing for a variety of reasons like to start a new life, or to escape difficult or abusive situations. Legally, adults are entitled to do that (unless they’re wanted for a crime), which means that any search for them needs to also protect their privacy. There is difficulty in deciding whether to prioritise the search over the missing person’s privacy, especially if it’s unclear why they are missing.

4.     Ambiguous loss is an incredible hardship.

Ambiguous loss is where you’re grieving for someone, but you don’t know what the precise nature of the grief is yet. If someone is missing, you don’t know if they’re dead or alive, if they’ll come back, or when they’ll come back, or why they’re missing. Pauline Boss, a psychologist who coined the term ‘ambiguous loss’ calls it the most difficult and traumatic form of grief. It’s difficult because there’s no rituals for coping with it, or coming together with other people, and there’s uncertainty about whether you should be grieving at all. These feelings don’t go away because the situation remains ambiguous. That said, many of the people I spoke to for The Missing Among Us had important insights on coping with this ambiguity. It’s important to heed these lessons to support people in our own lives going through something similar, and to support ourselves when we invariably come to ambiguous circumstances (whether it be related to missing persons or not).

Our world is facing huge ambiguities as well – COVID-19 is an example: we can only hope that people around the world will be okay, that we’ll be able to resume travel and make close contact with others (although we don’t know when). People who have faced ambiguous loss in their lives before hold a lot of wisdom for these challenges.

5.     Missing persons is not a police issue, it’s a community issue.

Loren O’Keeffe, the founder of MPAN (the Missing Persons Advocacy Network) told me that one of the things that surprised her when her brother went missing was that police were not involved in searching at all. That was something her and her family had to organise (and MPAN was set-up to provide guidance and resources for people finding themselves in a similar situation). Police are involved in searching for missing persons, but not in all cases.

As well, we often think of missing persons cases as ‘true crime’ stories, when actually these are separate but overlapping categories. Abduction is illegal. Running away from criminal charges is illegal. People may run away from situations of abuse, and abuse is also illegal. But many missing persons are neither victims nor perpetrators of crime.

The ‘solution’ to missing persons cases is not as simple as just ‘find them’. Missing persons cases result from a range of family, community, social, and structural issues. As I write, ‘People will continue to go missing for as long as there are reasons for them to do so.’ Some of these reasons include a lack of mental health or domestic abuse support services, discrimination, poverty, war and persecution. And just as these risk factors are our collective responsibility to address, we can also take on the collective responsibility of helping the search for missing persons, keeping our eyes open and awareness up, and listening to the stories of people who have gone missing or have been left behind.

Erin Stewart's book The Missing Among Us will be published by NewSouth in March 2021.

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