How to Volunteer for Missing Persons

Missing persons poster for child missing Augst 2007.
Posters like the one pictured here are just one of the tools used to search for the 2,300 Americans that are reported missing each day.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe

Amy Abell is 28 years old. She's 5 feet 6 inches (1.67 meters) tall, weighs 130 pounds (59 kilograms), has curly blonde hair, blue eyes and a tattoo of a Chinese symbol on her left hip. She was last seen on Sept. 12, 2005, at her home in Baltimore. No one has heard from her since [source: National Center for Missing Adults].

Profile after profile on the National Center for Missing Adults Web site tells the same story. Kelly Allen disappeared from a friend's house in Berkley, Mo. Trevor Angell's big rig was found abandoned at a pit stop in Las Vegas [source: National Center for Missing Adults].


Stories like these have made "America's Most Wanted" one of the longest running network television shows in history. With 2,300 Americans reported missing each day, host John Walsh has plenty of cases to chase [source: Krajicek].

On any given day, there are 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States, with 52 percent of those involving children under the age of 18 [source: National Crime Information Center]. In total, there are nearly 1 million people in the U.S. who are missing -- mostly men (55 percent) [source: National Crime Information Center].

The stereotypical kidnapping by a stranger is just that -- a stereotype. That scenario comprises only a tiny fraction of missing persons cases. More often, it is a case of mental illness, runaways or children abducted by non-custodial parents [source: National Crime Information Center].

No matter the circumstances, the statistics are enough to make anyone want to do something about it. Read on to find out which organizations are on the case.


Organizations Helping Missing Persons

When someone in the U.S. is missing, the first call is usually to the police, one of the nation's nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies that are responsible for investigating each case [source: FBI].

In recent years, the federal government has created four missing persons databases to help investigators in their pursuits: the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP).


The NCIC is maintained by the FBI to give federal, state and local police access to cross-agency information to help them crack their cases. CODIS assembles nationwide DNA information obtained from unidentified remains and relatives of missing persons. IAFIS is a national fingerprint database and ViCAP is designed to collect and analyze information in crimes like homicide, rape, kidnappings and missing persons cases [source: Ritter].

Besides these government resources, a number of non-profit organizations have sprung up to help ease the backlog -- and heartache -- so common in these cases.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) was established in 1984 to prevent child abduction, as well as find those who are already missing. The organization, based in Alexandria, Va., provides a range of services, from operating a 24-hour hotline to field reports of missing children and tips on ongoing cases to training police and government officials on how to investigate cases involving children [source: NCMEC].

The North American Missing Persons Network (NAMPN) is a volunteer-run Web site launched in January 2005 to help highlight cases of missing persons in Canada and the U.S [source: NAMPN]. Its sister site, The Doe Network, is a volunteer group dedicated to helping police solve cold cases by listing them on its Web site, getting media attention and matching missing persons cases with unidentified body cases [source: Doe Network].

Want to help? Read on to find out how to get involved.


Missing Persons Education and Training

To become a volunteer, you will likely have to fill out an application, provide references and undergo a background check. The opportunities range from fundraising and planning special events to helping promote missing persons-related legislation and aiding in investigations.

Most of these organizations have training programs that will educate you on the problem of missing persons, including common reasons for disappearance, statistics on who is most vulnerable and what kinds of services are available to aid families whose loved ones have vanished.


Depending on the type of volunteer work you choose, you will receive specialized training in things like search management and crime scene preservation, information on how to prevent abductions, and instructions on how to report and assist in searching for missing persons [source: Texas Center for the Missing].

You can also join organizations like the National Association of Volunteer Search and Rescue Teams (NAVSAR), which raises money to buy equipment and supplies to help investigators in their searches and acts as a contact for government agencies who need highly trained volunteers to aid in their investigations [source: NAVSAR].

Some organizations also offer classes on FBI databases, such as how to use the National Missing Person's DNA Database and IAFIS [source: Oregon State Police].

There are also a number of nationwide conferences and workshops for law enforcement, educators, victim service coordinators and volunteers on topics like current policies and practices in tracing missing persons, DNA testing and collection kit protocol, cold case analysis technology and proven investigative techniques [source: Fox Valley Technical College].

For more information about how you can help, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Doe Network. "International Center for Unidentified & Missing Persons." (Accessed 4/27/09)
  • FBI. "Uniform Crime Reports." (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Fox Valley Technical College. "Investigating Missing and Unidentified Persons." (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Garden of Innocence. "Providing Dignified Burials for Abandoned Children." (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Krajicek, David. "America's Missing." TruTV. (Accessed 4/27/09)
  • National Center for Missing Adults. "Missing Adults." (Accessed 4/27/09)