Updated: May 13
Previous research has predominantly examined the risk factors for ‘going missing’ by uncovering various demographic and psychopathological factors that place an individual at high risk for going missing to reduce and prevent these incidents through risk assessments and targeted interventions. Scholarship has attempted to account for some social and environmental impacts, classified as 'push' and 'pull' factors, that may influence a missing event (Tarling & Burrows, 2004). These researchers argue that combining the attributes affecting missingness (the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors) and the missing persons' level of risk can help with developing a standardized checklist for a missing person investigation in terms of how responses to these cases can be focused and triaged. This recognition that some people and/or cases may be more likely to go missing has brought about many factors that are said to contribute to missing events.
Existing Literature on Risk Factors:
Risk factors for missingness can be classified into demographic, psychopathological, and environmental categories. Demographic factors identified are those such as the sex/gender and race/ethnicity of the missing individual. Psychopathological factors involve mental illnesses, mental disorders, or mental distress, and the resulting manifestation of behaviours and experiences related to mental or psychological impairment. These can be factors such as the presence or diagnosis of mental illness, suicidal ideation, or experiences of self-harm. Lastly, environmental impacts encompass a wide range of topics, such as social, cultural, political, and economic factors. Examples of these might be social setting, occupation (or lack thereof), and current living status (i.e., housed or homeless).
There is evidence that the following demographic characteristics may serve as risk factors for missingness: female gender; male gender; Indigenous identity; and young age. To note, research on demographic factors and missingness has generally failed/been unable to include other demographics. This information is not often readily available or collected within data on missing person reports, which may explain why other associations have not yet been explored. Although the present factors have been quite illuminating in terms of who may be at high risk, little is known about the predictive association between other existing attributes that could be contributing to missingness. For instance, newer research suggests that family conflicts, specifically spousal arguments, render an individual more at risk for going missing. As such, studies suggests that, as a result, the incidence of missing persons may be reduced by intervening on family tensions and breakdowns, as well as marital relationship issues (e.g., Huey & Ferguson, 2020). What this indicates that one’s marital status, and possibly other unexplored demographic variables, could be influencing one’s risk for a missing episode.
While a few factors have emerged as increasing the risk of going missing, investigators have similarly been unable to explore and/or have paid less attention to other missing person characteristics. Current risk factors are physical disabilities; mental disabilities/cognitive capacity, i.e., Alzheimer’s or dementia; and medical conditions, such as diabetes, eating disorders, and thyroid conditions. Trauma exposure was also revealed as a risk factor amongst some studies, whereby on-going trauma, including physical, sexual, or domestic abuse increases the risk of going missing. Within this grouping, one area does represent a relatively significant body of literature. This research concentrates on an individual’s cognitive capacity specific to the elderly population and its impact on missingness. Such focus is likely the result of the global population aging leading to a growing number of adults with cognitive impairments.
Concerning psychopathological factors, researchers have mostly focused on the presence of mental health issues/mental illnesses as risk factors that may increase the likelihood of going missing. As an illustration, Wilkie et al. (2014) found that patients with a schizophrenia diagnosis were disproportionately more likely to go missing, therefore placing these individuals within a high-risk grouping. To this end, other investigators have revealed that, specific to missing episodes from mental health settings, younger, male patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are at high risk for going missing. Researchers have also established that existing mental health problems, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, and self-harm and suicidal ideation serve as risk factors for missingness. Many studies have also highlighted drug and alcohol use and abuse as prominent factors associated with missingness. Given the abundance of research on these variables, it can be said that the presence of mental illness and/or addiction renders an individual at high risk of going missing.
Lastly, an expanding area of risk literature suggests that environmental factors can impact missingness. What this indicates is that risk research on missing persons is discovering that there are factors outside of characteristics of the missing individual that can place an individual at risk for a missing episode. For example, Kiepal et al. (2012) noted that people who are unemployed or are not currently in the labour force (i.e., students delaying entry) face a disproportionate risk of being reported as missing. Other researchers have uncovered that one’s economic state, including financial pressures/strains and lack of employment opportunities, can place an individual at a high risk of going missing. The remaining risk factors within this category are relationship breakdown, family abuse/conflict, and/or family rejection; experiencing life strains/worries and immediate social pressure; homelessness or a transient lifestyle, such as being temporarily housed; and sex trade work.
The Issues With These Risk Factors:
The limited amount of literature that examines risk for missingness is rife with conflicting, bleary results, with some scholars finding evidence for some risk factors in certain studies and others failing to support the same risk factors in additional studies. These findings are vastly convoluted across the risk literature on missing persons, which inhibits the development of clear and informed procedures, plans, and policies regarding prevention and reduction efforts for missingness. Additionally, the emphasis in empirical literature presently places the risk factors said to influence the phenomenon of ‘going missing’ as fixed objects in time and place. What this means is that there is evidence that the linkages between risk factors and missingness vary depending on the particular population under study or as a function of other study attributes, such as location. Thus, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no “magic bullet” or universal explanation that provides evidence for who will and will not go missing. Problematically, there is, at this time, no research addressing the limitations above.
The current approach to understanding this matter has consequences for how police handle these investigations, as well as for public policy and practice. While the identified risk factors related to missingness can be informative, the current body of literature lacks clarity and connections across these factors to establish low- and high-risk groups for directing risk assessments and prevention measures for the police. For example, by identifying a myriad of predictive variables that places one at risk for going missing, it negates the potential pathways through which these factors may influence the outcome (i.e., how risk factors work together, overlapping risk factors, and pseudocorrelations/proxy risk factors). The dynamic processes and mechanisms influencing missingness, therefore, end up being excluded from the conversation. This approach also fails to account for the limitations researchers often face in their ability to draw conclusions from study findings (i.e., limited to a specific population, time, and/or place). Thus, prevention and reduction efforts aimed at those classified as at risk for going missing through risk factors require refining, and there is a need to organize any factors into coherent conceptual models that address the common risk factors for missingness.
Conclusions regarding risk factors for ‘going missing’ in Canada presently cannot be offered, although there have been attempts to do so in the current body of literature. So, questions remain regarding the extent to which the risk factors identified in the current literature can even be classified as risk factors at all (i.e., may be better termed antecedents, etc.). There is a need to rethink the conversation on risk factors for missingness and question if this approach is helpful or harmful in the sense of muddying the research base with more questions than answers.
Writer: Lorna Ferguson
Lorna Ferguson is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Western Ontario, Canada and is the Founder of the Missing Persons Research Hub. Lorna has a broad interest in policing research and developing evidence-based approaches to policing and crime prevention, including issues related to firearms and social media use. Currently, she focuses on police responses to missing person cases.