Missing persons cases: Is an ounce of prevention better than a pound of cure?

The high number of missing person reports that occur globally each year highlights the need for research in this academically neglected field. In this regard, in Spain, some research is being conducted in collaboration with the Spanish National Centre of Missing Persons (CNDES) dependent of the Spanish Ministry of the Interior. One of the main goals of these initiatives is to generate an empirical body of knowledge which will establish an evidence-informed approach for preventing the missing persons’ phenomenon, as well as the institutional first response when dealing with missing person cases.

In this regard, the first step was focused on exploring whether there are several scenarios or behavioural themes that appear across the scope of disappearance cases in Spain. A representative sample of police missing persons reports gathered from Civil Guard and National Police was studied. Up to 27 behaviours which occur during the disappearance were codified, as well as psychosocial variables of the missing person and circumstances surrounding the case. Finally, data were studied using multivariate statistical techniques. Specifically, multidimensional scaling (MDS) was used.

The results of the research suggested that the variables which characterize Spanish missing person’s themes are grouped by similarity in a two-dimensional space determined by: (a) one axis related to higher or lower willingness, and (b) another axis related to the influence of third parties. In addition, four behavioural themes were identified: intentional-escape, intentional-dysfunctional, unintentional-accidental/drift, and forced-criminal.

> Intentional-escape: people who go intentionally-escape missing are usually coping with stressors in the family environment. This is indicated by “having family problems” sometimes preceded by “previous arguments” and the intention of “avoiding responsibilities” in this context. They “need space” from their family environment, so they decide to escape, although sometimes it is shown as a “rebellious behaviour.”

> Intentional-dysfunctional: people who go intentionally-dysfunctional missing are related to economical and emotional vulnerabilities, as well as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In addition, there are some circumstances that widely characterize this theme including the presence of “previous suicide threats,” “suicide notes,” and “self-harm attempts.” In this regard, some individuals intentionally leave by “going to a symbolic place.”

> Unintentional-accidental/drift: people who go unintentionally-accidental/drift missing are related to situations that are highly influenced by mental health or neurodegenerative issues. This includes circumstances such as “intentional abandon of their medication” or “missing their medication” and indicate vulnerabilities which produce a “health accident” (e.g., disorientation) while “travelling on foot.” On the other hand, circumstances such as “having a busy lifestyle” occasionally produce miscommunication situations in which the person is unintentionally reported to police as missing.

> Forced-criminal: this is related to those individuals who go unintentionally missing influenced by a third party and related to criminal facts. It is characterized by circumstances such as “having problems related to criminality,” “being a separation process with an ex-partner”, or “being in a different country.” There are some key behaviours such as “being victim of a crime,” “meeting with an intimate partner or ex” that clearly define this theme.

Once that the missing persons’ behavioural themes were identified and considering the big amount of research which have previously studied socio-demographic missing person’s characteristics, Chi-squared tests were conducted. This was focused on determining if gender, age, nationality, mental health, and the condition of the missing person when located were distributed differently across the themes.

The results showed that going intentionally missing as a means of ‘Dysfunctional’ or unintentionally missing as a means of ‘Accidental’ was present in a higher proportion of males. In contrast, going intentionally missing because of ‘Escape’ or ‘Criminal’ reasons was present in a higher proportion of females. Regarding the group of age of the missing person, going intentionally missing as a means of ‘Dysfunctional’ and unintentionally as a means of ‘Accidental’ was present in higher proportion of adults. In contrast, intentionally missing because of ‘Escape’ reasons was present in higher proportion of minors. In addition, going unintentionally missing as a means of ‘Accidental’ was greater in missing persons with MHI. Finally, missing persons that went intentionally missing as a means of ‘Escape’ were found in a good state of health to a higher proportion. Those who went unintentionally missing as a means of ‘Accidental’ were found to be harmed (but not deceased) to a higher proportion. In contrast, missing persons that went intentionally missing as a means of ‘Dysfunctional’ were located deceased in a higher proportion.

The development of this kind of research, specifically these findings, entails different implications, both at prevention level and in the scope of police investigations:

1. Regarding prevention: This knowledge provides preventive information to those agencies working with vulnerable groups (e.g., identifying minors’ risk of going missing from educational centers, elderlies’ risk of going missing from mental health centers, or social services among others), as well as promotes prevention campaigns focused on specific groups of people according to their socio-demographic and psychosocial characteristics. On the other hand, this research was considered as the first step in the development of future research focused on the development of a structured professional judgment (SPJ) risk assessment system for harmed or deceased outcomes in disappearances, as well as involuntary-forced cases.

2. Summarizing: Prevention goes beyond simple descriptions. It is necessary to promote research focused on identifying those factors which influence the fact that a person goes unintentionally missing or by the influence of third parties (forced), as well as those which end in harm and fatal outcome. In this way, perhaps it will favour the compilation of indicators that could identify explicative patters which will favour the prevention of missing person cases and the optimization of police investigations.

Figure 1. Behavioural themes in Spanish missing person cases.


Writer: Néstor García Barceló

Ph. D Candidate in Psychology, Criminologist and MSc in Criminal Investigation and Criminal Profiling. He is a Professor in Law and Behaviour at the IE University. He is a researcher at the Institute for Forensic and Security Sciences (ICFS) of the Autonomous University of Madrid and a co-worker at the Spanish National Centre of Missing Persons (CNDES) of the Secretary of State for Security of the Ministry of Interior in Spain. His research lines are related to Applied Criminology and Investigative Psychology. His areas of interest are focused on the application of behavioural sciences to the criminal investigation. Specifically, he has worked on projects which aim to address identified knowledge gaps for delivering operational support to missing persons investigations to Spain policing.

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