Every day, all around the world, children go missing. A Missing Child is a Vulnerable Child.

They may be runaways or missing for unknown reasons, victims of family or non-family abductions, or they may simply be lost or missing for seemingly trivial reasons (such as a misunderstanding between a child and his or her guardian).

International legal instruments provide a universal definition of how “child” is defined. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines “child” as “every human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” But there is no similar global consensus on how to define “missing child.” The lack of a common understanding leads to the absence of a coordinated and standardized approach to the registration, identification, investigation and location of missing children’s cases, as well as the proper return of those children to their families when appropriate, at the international level.  The concept is largely dependent on the national context and cultural and social influencers, which in turn make it difficult to know the full extent of the problem and to determine how best to protect children from going missing or from being abducted – or how to find them.

A good starting point for any definition of “missing child” should be:

“Any person under the age of 18 whose whereabouts are unknown.”

Various countries have established definitions either within their laws or organization’s policies. Below are a few examples of definitions used to show the complexity and variations.


“Anyone reported to police or by police as someone whose whereabouts are unknown, whatever the circumstances of their disappearance, and they are considered missing until located. A missing person under the age of 18 is classified as a missing child. In the case of a missing child, they are considered missing if they are no longer in the care or control of their legal guardian and have not been removed by law, and they are considered missing until returned to appropriate care and control.”

Royal Canadian Mounted Police


“Any child, under 18 years of age, whose whereabouts are unknown by his/her custodial parent(s) or legal guardian(s).”

Smile of the Child


“A missing child is a child, whose whereabouts are not known to the parents, legal guardian or any other person or institution legally entrusted with the custody of the child, whatever may be the circumstances or causes of disappearance, and shall be considered
missing and in need of care and protection until located or his safety and well-being established.”

Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, Article 92 (G.S.R. 898, 21 Sept. 2016)

South Korea

“Article 2:
1. The term  ‘child, etc’ means any of the following persons:
a. A child under the age of 14 at the time he/she goes missing;
b. A person with an intellectual, autistic or mental disability, among persons with disabilities.

2.  The term ‘Missing child, etc’ means any child, etc. separated from his/her custodian due to any cause, such as abduction, enticement, desertion, accident, leaving home or getting lost.”

Protection and Support for Missing Children Act, Article 2 (Act No.11048, 15 Sept. 2011)

Some countries further define “missing child” by categorizing disappearances according to the individual case circumstances. This, in turn, assists in formulating an appropriate response by law enforcement as well as other agencies.

Categories of “missing children” (with “child” being defined as any person younger than 18 years of age) include, but are not limited to:

  • Endangered Runaway”: a child who is away from home without the permission of his or her parent(s) or legal guardian(s)
  • Family Abduction”: the taking, retention, or concealment of a child or children by a parent, other family member, custodian, or his or her agent, in derogation of the custody rights, including visitation rights, of another parent or family member
  • Non-Family Abduction”: the coerced and unauthorized taking of a child by someone other than a family member
  • Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing”: facts are insufficient to determine the cause of a child’s disappearance
  • Abandoned or Unaccompanied Minor”: a child, not accompanied by an adult legally responsible for him or her, including those traveling alone without custodial permission, those separated by an emergency, those in a refugee situation, and those who have been abandoned or otherwise left without any adult care

There is no singular definition of a missing person or missing child; rather there are a number of different ways to understand and interpret what it means to be “missing.” The difficulty in providing a straightforward definition reflects the wider difficulties facing those investigating disappearances, offering support to missing persons and their families, or performing research on the topic. However, it is imperative to define who is considered “missing” as it will allow law enforcement and other agencies to better understand the issue, respond swiftly and appropriately, and provide support when needed. Defining “missing child” is the first step toward creating a more comprehensive framework to assist with the investigation, recovery and prevention of missing children and child abduction.