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What To Do If Your Child Goes Missing

It’s every parent’s nightmare.

The clock chimes 4 p.m. and Jane or Johnny still isn’t home from school.

A Foothill Ranch family recently lived through such a scare.

Cearra Moawad, 14, failed to come home after attending a full Friday of classes at Rancho Santa Margarita Middle School. She didn’t show up later that night, either, or the next day.

Search parties papered the area with flyers, asking the public to assist in the search.

Luckily, the story had a happy ending—Cearra was located and returned home early Monday morning. Police said she ran away of her own volition and hadn’t been in any danger.

But preparing for such an eventuality, however unlikely, shouldn’t be done after your child has gone missing.

Patch spoke with an Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy who works in Lake Forest to get information for parents about how to deal with such a situation, both before and after.

What To Do If Your Child Goes Missing 

  • Call your child’s friends to see if they know anything about where he or she is, or had plans to go.
  • If it’s a school day, call your child’s school to see if he or she attended class that day, and if teachers or other campus staff noticed anything out of the ordinary.
  • Check your child’s room for any red flags. Is a backpack or large amount of clothing missing, as if your child had planned to leave home? Are essentials, like his or her wallet, credit card or cell phone, missing? If those items are missing, it’s likely his or her absence was planned.
  • Call police if those items were left behind, or none of your child’s friends, friends’ parents or teachers have a clue where he or she might be.
  • After calling police, begin gathering information that can assist them in a search, including a recent photo, physical description, phone numbers of close friends, medical records (including dentistry) and all financial information, such as bank account numbers.

What Police Do If Your Child Goes Missing

There are two categories of missing children, said Deputy Rich Nelson of Lake Forest Police Services.

Most worrisome, Nelson said, is when a child disappears under “suspicious circumstances.”

This is when a child with no history of running away and a good relationship with his or her parents goes missing.

If that is the case, parents are encouraged to call police immediately.

“There is no 24-hour rule,” Nelson said, meaning that it’s not necessary to wait a full day before filing a missing person report. “If it is suspicious, time is of the essence. We take [missing] kids very seriously and we’ll do whatever we can.”

Once parents report a missing child, a general broadcast goes out to area dispatchers, he said.

That means the child’s description is given out to local law enforcement, who keep an eye out for him or her.

If circumstances are suspicious, the broadcast goes out to every patrol car in the county—even those that are not part of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, including city-run police departments, Nelson said.

“Every patrol car in the county knows about it then,” he said.

If that doesn’t pan out, the department will use helicopters or even bloodhounds to track children who are feared to be in danger.

However, most cases aren’t suspicious, Nelson emphasized. Frequently, a child who runs off does so after school on a Friday, after a fight with his or her parents.

That’s the second category of missing children, in which there’s a likely reason that the child has taken off on his or her own volition.

Typically, a runaway stays with a friend, and returns home Sunday night or, at the latest, Monday, he said.

Still, parents should never hesitate to contact police if they fear their child may be in danger, Nelson added.

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