Of all places, our emergency shelter program experienced an unimaginable crisis – a child had disappeared.
The family of 13-year-old Jenni relocated to our community in Salem, Oregon when her dad secured a decent job. Work came easy for her dad, but securing housing proved to be more difficult. Initially, his paychecks covered their living expenses, including the cost of a hotel while they searched for permanent housing, but as time went on, making ends meet became increasingly difficult. Her dad barely kept his family sheltered and fed, and so saving for the deposit and first month of rent remained out of reach. Things became worse, and their only option was for the family of five to move into their SUV. That’s when they contacted Family Promise for help.
Things improved gradually, and their household worked their case plan to secure long-term housing—that is, until things changed one afternoon.
Jenni was nowhere to be found. She did not answer her phone, and she was two hours late to dinner. Her frantic mom reached out to us for help.
Fortunately, the previous summer, one of our staff had a meeting with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and remembered some basics regarding how to search for a missing child, which they implemented immediately:
- Immediately contact law enforcement for assistance.
- Obtain information from the parent(s).
Our staff are trained in Trauma Informed Care and were able to use these skills working with Jenni’s mom. We were able to get information about possible locations, friends and ideas about where Jenni might go.
- Obtain a recent picture with a detailed description of what the child was wearing that day. Jenni’s mom also helped with this by providing a picture from her phone.
- Designate one person (in this case, a staff member) to be the nexus of information that accurately communicated with volunteers.
This story fortunately has a happy ending. Jenni is a responsible teenager. She knew she was late, but there was nothing she could do about it. She stayed after school to receive tutoring assistance and planned to use the bus to return to her family, but she could not find her bus pass and her cell phone was dead.
After systematically searching 12 locations throughout our community, we were able to find Jenni walking from school to our shelter. She was safely reunited with her family.
This situation scared everyone in our organization. We realized that we had some skills that could be utilized to search for a lost child, but we needed better plans in place. Thankfully, NCMEC already compiled best practices in a publication, When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, which we successfully used.
Jenni’s family is no longer homeless. They’ve been successful housed for almost two years and now know what to do if someone loses their bus pass. While crises like these are stunning and tragic, they help to better prepare our organization to help other families and teenagers like Jenni.