When a child goes missing

As of January 2018, over 900 children have been recovered through this programme

Naeem Sadiq February 06, 2018
The writer is a health, safety and environment consultant

In 1996, a nine-year-old girl, Amber Hagerman, was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Arlington, Texas. Within days of this tragic incident, plans were initiated to develop better laws and more effective child protection systems. Thus began the development and adoption of ‘Amber Alert’, an acronym for ‘America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response’. As of January 2018, over 900 children have been recovered through this programme, which has now been adopted by 22 other countries besides the US.

Somewhere in another country on the same globe in the same time period, a single individual sliced and chemically dissolved the dead bodies of over 100 children in Lahore. Militants barbarically massacred 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, and in the small town of Husain Khanwala, videos emerged of 280 children who were abused, filmed and blackmailed. In the first six months of 2017, 10 minor children between the ages of five to 10 were kidnapped, raped and killed in Kasur. None of these soul-shattering events were however significant enough to shake an insensitive government to change and reform its archaic and dysfunctional policing processes.

There is an urgent need to develop a nationwide ‘Missing Child Alert’ (MCA) system supported by ‘Missing Child Response Teams’ (MCRTs) in each province of Pakistan. An MCA alert is raised when the police have determined that a missing child complaint meets the ‘MCA’ criteria. The ‘alert’ sends messages to radio and TV stations, posts messages on websites and social media, and asks the cellphone companies to send SMS messages to cellphone users in the selected area (city, province or nation-wide). TV channels begin to show tickers while the radio stations interrupt broadcasts to announce details of the missing child. Simultaneously the ‘MCRT ’teams spring into action to investigate, search and recover the missing child.

While the formation of provincial ‘Child Protection Authorities’ is a welcome initiative, it may have been far more productive to first enact MCA and MCRT legislation. Such a legislation is required to bind the concerned organisations to undertake the information dissemination tasks as soon as an MCA alert is activated. Likewise provinces could define the role, composition and functioning of MCRTs.

The government currently has no mechanism for collecting data for missing children. Only for Karachi the missing child figures for the year 2017 vary between 1,894 (obtained by an NGO) to 72 (registered by the police). A MCA and MCRT system could radically transform the accountability, recording, alerting and investigating processes for the recovery of missing children. Making it mandatory to register an FIR instead of making entries in the ‘roznamcha’ register must be the first step for all missing child complaints. Establishing a computer/IT facility in every police station of the province must be the next. The following paragraphs define a typical MCA sequence:

  1. As soon as a family has sufficient reason to believe that a child is missing, it reports the matter to the nearest police station.

  2. The police are bound to act in either of the two ways, a) If the missing child event meets the defined MCA criteria, an FIR is registered and an MCA alert and MCRT processes are activated; b) If the missing child event falls short of the MCA criteria then only the MCRT is activated and an FIR registered.

An MCA alert is raised only if the event simultaneously meets a 3-point criteria, ie — a) The missing person is a child under the age of 18; b) The police have reason to believe that the missing child has been abducted/missing; c) The police have reason to believe that the physical safety or the life of the child is in danger. The decision to initiate the MCA alert ought to be taken by a senior police officer such as an SSP, SP or DPO.

The MCRT is activated for all cases of missing children, independently or in conjunction with an MCA alert. It is a rapid response task force that assumes complete responsibility for the recovery of a missing child. Led by a police SSP/SP, an MCRT consists of highly trained professionals such as a forensic expert, an investigator, a search and rescue professional, a special branch representative, a digital forensic expert, a ‘Crime Scene Unit’ representative and a ‘Child Protection Officer’ of the Child Protection Authority. Each province should create and train as many MCRT teams as considered necessary.

An inorganic police system based on the laws enacted in 1861 and operating like domestic workers for those in power can neither change nor reform itself. The trick lies in meticulously reforming just one small process, such as an MCA system, to establish a precedence and pattern for the much needed change in almost every other aspect of governance.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2018.

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Khan | 6 years ago | Reply Bravo! Govt will only take action if civil society galvanizes and demands such a system. This is a tremendous first step.
Shahid Abdulla | 6 years ago | Reply Excellent article Naeem sb. As always, you have identified a serious issue and also gave a practical solution. This too may go on deaf ears!! Like you, there are several brilliant people in this country who can assist the government in putting their act together but sadly their priorities are very different. Keep writing my friend maybe some day ‘kisi ke kaan pe joon reeng jai’
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