It is a drama that families hope they will never have to face: the disappearance of a child. Amid the panic and the stress it is crucial that a support system is quickly made available, on top of whatever action the police may take. And for help organisations on the ground, it is a key part of children’s rights.
Some cases receive a lot of media attention; others become a lonely struggle for families desperate for help.
An estimated one million children go missing every year in the European Union. These include runaways, criminal abductions, those abducted by a parent, the lost or injured, as well as missing unaccompanied migrant children. Of course, many of them are eventually found, often within hours or a few days, but many others remain on the missing list.
Poland is one of the countries attempting to do something about it. Every few days at least three children under the age of 13 disappear there, and every day 10 teenagers are reported missing.
In Warsaw, Right On met a woman who has been searching for her niece for the past decade.
Seven-year-old Karina Surmacz was nowhere to be seen after her mother was found shot dead at home in 2002, along with her partner. It is possible the killings are linked to organised crime, but there has been no progress on solving the murders – or Karina’s disappearance.
Małgorzata Niemiec, Karina’s aunt, told euronews:
“People say she might be dead, that she was murdered. But until she is found somewhere, until I see her dead body, and there’s no doubt, for me she will continue to be alive. I’ll continue to wait for her.”
Karina’s family believe it is likely she was abducted by the killer. The girl’s duvet, shoes and other items were missing from her room.
Małgorzata said: “I hope that she is found, that she’s been happy over the years, that she has not gone without and has been healthy. I hope that she has had enough to eat. I really hope that she is found.”
For people like Karina’s aunt, missing people organisations provide crucial help and support.
A missing children hotline in Poland is part of a wider European project: the same number is now being used in most countries, and it can be a lifeline for distraught families.
Zuzanna Ziajko from the organisation “ITAKA – Centre for Missing People”, told Right On: “They don’t know how quickly the police should start to act, what it will involve, and often they’re only told that a child disappearance statement has been completed.
“They have to go home with this great burden, not knowing where their child is, not knowing how the search is organised. They don’t know how to cope with the problem.”
The hotline is for the reporting of cases, advice and support, and also for tipoffs from the public.
But it is also there for runaway teenagers, for example, to talk through the issues related to their disappearance.
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “All European countries were legally required to have the hotline number in operation by the end of May last year. Many have complied, but others are still to meet their obligations.
“In those countries it seems to be a question of cost and who pays, but also a lack of information and awareness. The pressure is now on to have the hotline number spread to all EU states.”
Luxembourg is the latest to introduce the hotline, and more launches are expected to follow.
Many of the operators are members of Missing Children Europe, an umbrella organisation that has been pushing for the single, dedicated number.
Hopes are high that the number of cases solved will now increase.
Despite its financial troubles, Greece is one of the most active countries when it comes to having systems in place for when children disappear.
Emergency services and volunteers are geared up to be quickly mobilised when the hotline receives an alert.
Right On spoke to one mother who rang the number when her four-year-old boy wandered away from a holiday home on the island of Andros last summer.
After rescue teams and local residents were scrambled, the child was located several hours later safe and sound.
The rescued boy’s mother told euronews: “At first I felt panic, but the young woman I spoke to on the hotline reassured me and told me to keep calm, saying they would help find the boy as quickly as possible.
“Gradually I tried to cooperate with them as I was in a terrible state psychologically. I thought I would never see him again, never find him.”
The organisation that runs Greece’s hotline, The Smile of the Child, was behind the setting up of a missing children response team, to have rescuers on the ground in the early stages of a disappearance.
Whether it is the police or the hotline that receives the alert first, the aim is to waste no time in sharing the information.
Vassilis Orfanos, Coordinator of the Missing Children Response Team, said: “It is very important for us, whenever a child has gone missing, to get notified very very quickly, so we can respond to the incident as fast as we can.”
Greece also has a public alert system for suspected abductions, flashing up on television and the likes of motorway signs.
The Greek hotline received almost 6,000 calls in 2011 and dealt with the cases of 120 missing children. Eight of those have still not been found. But cooperation seems to be the key.
Costas Yannopoulos, Chairman of “The Smile of the Child” told Right On: “We are uniting our forces. That has been our motto, the message we want to show. We are combining forces for the children.
“The Smile of the Child, the Red Cross, Greek Rescue Teams, the Police, the Fire Service, the Port Authorities, Civil Defence – all together with a single goal.”
That message is echoed by the police. A fully automated computer system has been established, allowing the centralising of information, which can then be spread in different formats within minutes.
Captain Panagiotis Papantonis from the Missing Persons Unit of the Greek Police told euronews: “This initiative is very important, and it’s very good that we were the first country to establish this service now operating in Greece.
“It has helped us in many disappearance cases, because while the parents may not have given us some piece of information, we received it anonymously through the hotline.”
And sometimes just one small clue from the public is all that is needed to bring a missing child home.