Investigating Disappeared Individuals

Investigating disappeared individuals is an immense task that involves a multidisciplinary team of professionals. It should be conducted within a legal framework that guarantees the right to truth and justice for families of victims.


The first step is to file a missing person’s report. This is usually done at the police station where the individual last lived.

1. Investigate the Situation

In the initial phase, police investigators should seek to build up a comprehensive picture of the missing person’s family, friends, behaviour and habits (or lifestyle). It is important that this information supports risk assessments and is used to identify possible reasons for disappearance (or hypotheses).

Families are often left in a state of shock when their loved one goes missing. This is compounded by a lack of information and inadequate support, resulting in a spiral of fear and anxiety that may lead to stigmatization within their community. Moreover, families may blame themselves for their loved one’s disappearance and ruminate over what they could have done to prevent it, leading to feelings of guilt and self-blame.

For these reasons, an individual should be identified who can act as the point of contact for the family and will agree with them on when they will next be contacted. This person should be trained to conduct prevention interviews and have access to specialist psychological support when necessary. It is advisable that such interviews be carried out in-person.

2. Gather Information

In order to identify missing persons, it is necessary to collect physical and medical information, lifestyle habits, relationships between and among individuals, as well as contextual, circumstantial, and secondary information. This information will be useful when comparing it with other persons who are missing or unidentified.

For this reason, it is crucial to ensure adequate involvement of families/relatives in the Search process and to inform them regularly about the status of the operation. This will enable them to participate as repositories of information and opinions, thereby improving the effectiveness of the identification process.

Begin by checking the person’s home, friends and family members, and other places they typically frequent. Check social media and print out any correspondence that may contain clues. Post fliers with a clear photo, date of disappearance and contact number in places they might frequent, such as hospitals, jails, schools, homeless shelters and churches. Also send a photo and description of the person to local media so they can help spread the word. This will also attract the attention of forensic experts and law enforcement.

3. Contact Law Enforcement

If you suspect foul play or your loved one has gone missing out of character, it’s important to report this to law enforcement right away. Depending on the severity of your situation, they may contact the FBI to assist with the investigation.

The police can do a number of things to help find your missing loved one, such as contacting neighbors and acquaintances who have regular or recent contact with them and entering the person into their local computerized system. This information can be accessed by medical examiners, investigators and others who need to know the details of a case.

Law enforcement can also utilize a tool called skip tracing which scans public records to see where a missing person was last seen or heard from. It can also check social media, phone numbers and other sources for clues.

It’s also helpful for family members and friends to get involved in the search. They can hang fliers at places like gas stations, grocery stores, post offices, banks, churches, hospitals and parks. They can use their social media to spread the word.

4. Contact Family

Family members often become an essential resource when it comes to investigating missing persons. They can help identify risks or harm that the individual may face; give access to services for longer term support if required; and provide a valuable source of information to police.

If a loved one goes missing, you should report them to the authorities immediately. If the person is vulnerable (under 18 years of age, over 65, suffering from physical or mental illness, depressed or suicidal) it may be even more important that you report them and act quickly.

Depending on the situation and circumstances surrounding the disappearance some investigations can last months or even years. This can cause emotional stress for families and can also place financial strain as they have to pay for private investigators, travel costs or time off work.

During this period it is also beneficial for families to contact the media to help publicize the case and gather information. They can also assist with community search efforts by distributing posters or fliers. This should include the missing person’s full name, date of birth and social security number.

5. Contact the Media

Millions of people go missing every year as a result of conflict, human rights abuses, disasters, organized crime, and irregular migration. While some families may feel uncomfortable with intense media attention, contacting the local television and radio stations is an important way to get information about a missing person out to the public.

Radio and television stations can broadcast a brief clip of your missing family member or break into regular programming to provide an emergency alert, just as they would do during a weather or fire emergency. This method of dissemination is faster than waiting for a news story to run on the evening television news. It is also an efficient alternative to paying for a public relations firm, which can be expensive and often lacks law enforcement contacts.

Some law enforcement agencies are wary of media involvement in active investigations, especially if the case is considered to be suspicious or involve foul play. However, a swift use of the media has led to many missing person recoveries and is a necessary step to finding your loved one.