Who will find the missing child
The pain and the agony of the parents of the five year old girl, missing since last 2 days, was indescribable. They had made repeated visits to the police station, where they were made to wait for long hours, only to be told to go back and look for her in the neighbourhood. The third day, a crowd gathered in front of the police station, raised slogans and pelted a few stones. A local MP turned up along with a few cameramen. A TV channel began to run a ticker, while another converted it into a breaking news. Pressed to the wall, the police most reluctantly scribbled an undecipherable labyrinthine called an FIR. On the evening of the 4th day, assaulted and mutilated dead body of the girl was found in a nearby garbage pile.
For 70 long years the state failed to create mechanisms to respond to incidents of missing children. Even today it finds itself reluctant and clueless in building processes to undertake this task with speed and efficiency. A basic ‘missing child response system’ could be easily created by establishing the four elementary processes described in this article. These are, a single nationwide child support helpline, a police response that includes an FIR registration, an alert mechanism and a rapid response team to investigate, search and rescue the child in distress.
The world has learnt the importance of using a single nation-wide emergency phone number, such as 911 in USA and 112 in Europe. Pakistan on the other hand has unthinkingly adopted innumerable emergency numbers. Karachi alone is burdened with a plethora of helplines, i.e. 15 for Police, 1101 for Rangers, 1102 for CPLC, 1915 for Rahnuma, 16 for fire, 115 for Edhi, 1020 for Chhipa, 1121 for child helpline, 1122 for Rescue and 1021 for Aman Foundation. Except for the private ambulance services, the other helpline numbers will either not respond or not have the wherewithal to be of any help.
Thus, withdrawing all existing emergency numbers and replacing them with a single nation-wide three-digit helpline number for all emergency reporting, ought to be the first task for building a child support helpline. Every call ought to be recorded and a nation-wide data-base built for every reported incident of a missing child or a child abuse. A key characteristic of such a helpline should be to eliminate the existing practice of a complainant going to a police station to lodge a complaint. Instead, it should be for the police to immediately reach the complainant, conduct interviews, examine the scene of the incident, take pictures, gather evidence and record an FIR. The first few hours of a missing child are critical and hence every disappearance is treated as an abduction, until proven otherwise. The registration of an FIR and immediate start of investigation must be declared mandatory in every reported event of a missing child.
The politicians would do well to stop dragging their feet and urgently pass the pending Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Act. Every ‘missing child’ or child abuse incident reported on the Helpline, should be scrutinised and where appropriate a ‘missing child alert’ (MCA) activated. The MCA involves use of multiple communication channels such as TV, Radio, cell phone based SMS messages, motorway information systems and announcements at Railway stations, bus terminals and mosques.
‘Helplines’ and ‘Alerts’ are only as good as the people and processes that work behind the scenes to support and respond to children in distress. Team composition and training is critical to how well the missing child response teams (MCRTs) are able to respond to reports of missing or abused children. An integrated and trained MCRT would typically consist of police officials, crime investigators, representatives of child support units and those with experience in interviewing, search and rescue, forensic evidence collection and information analysis. One can learn from numerous gidelines such as https://ncjtc-static.fvtc.edu/resources/RS00002437.pdf and https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/206248NCJRS.pdf on activities and planning of MCRTs.
The effectiveness of an MCRT reflects the the state’s response and concern for a missing child. MCRTs often work in close coordination with local ‘community-based child protection committees’. A country that can easily provide a protocol of 50 vehicles and 300 policemen to its Chief Ministers can certainly establish procedures and resources to rescue and recover its missing and abused children.