The Definition of “Missing”

A missing child is a vulnerable child.

International legal instruments exist to: provide a universal definition of a “child” (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child); protect against enforced disappearance (United Nations Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance); and address the rights of parents in case of parental child abduction to another country (Hague Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction). However, there is no similar global consensus as to how to define a “missing child” or how to investigate cases involving missing/abducted children. This lack of a common definition and a standard response results in few reliable statistics on the scope of the problem around the world, which can further complicates these cases.

It is imperative to define who is considered “missing” as it will allow law enforcement and other agencies to better understand the issue, respond swiftly and appropriately, and provide appropriate support.

Through our Global Missing Children’s Research Initiative , we are gaining a better understanding of existing definitions around the world. Below are a few examples of general definitions used in different parts of the world;

Canada   |   Greece   |   India   |   South Korea

At ICMEC, we define “missing child” as “any person under the age of 18 whose whereabouts are unknown.” However, we also know that children can go missing for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is important for countries to further define “missing child” by categorizing disappearances according to risk and circumstances. This will assist in the investigative response.

Categories of “missing children” (with “child” being defined as any person younger than 18 years of age) include, but are not limited to:

  • Endangered Runaway: a child who is away from home without the permission of his or her parent(s) or legal guardian(s). The child may have voluntarily left home for a variety of reasons.
  • Family Abduction: the taking, retention, or concealment of a child or children by a parent, other family member, custodian, or his or her agent, in derogation of the custody rights, including visitation rights, of another parent or family member.
  • Non-Family Abduction: the coerced and unauthorized taking of a child by someone other than a family member
  • Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing: a child who has disappeared under unknown circumstances. Facts are insufficient to determine the cause of a child’s disappearance.
  • Abandoned or Unaccompanied Minor: a child who is not accompanied by an adult legally responsible for him or her, including those traveling alone without custodial permission, those separated by an emergency, those in a refugee situation, and those who have been abandoned or otherwise left without any adult care.

To learn more, please read our Model Missing Child Framework.