Implementing a Missing Child Procedure within a Campus Recreation Department

April 10, 2011

Jonathan Hart
Assistant Director of Campus Recreation
Facilities and Operations
Georgia Institute of Technology

What would you do if a child was reported missing in your facility? Would your staff be prepared and able to react to this unimaginable scenario and possible life-threatening situation? Before you are faced with having to assemble a ‘search party’ as a means of finding the missing child and reuniting them with their parent and/or guardian, consider employing the following information to assist with safeguarding your facility, programs, and aiding the staff against the threat of child abduction.

Last spring, we (Campus Recreation Risk Management Committee) were charged with developing and implementing an effective protocol that would enable us to properly train/instruct staff (mostly students) to effectively handle and react when a child is reported missing. We discovered a national program called Code Adam (named after Adam Walsh who was abducted and brutally murdered in 1981) to assist in our pursuits.

Many of us may remember Adam Walsh and/or his parents, John and Revé Walsh, who are credited for their crusade and advocacy work which helped to institute congressional legislation for missing children nationwide — specifically The ‘Missing Children Act’ of 1982 and the federal ‘Missing Children’s Assistance Act’ of 1984. Both of these Legislative Acts resulted in the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to serve as the national governing body for information and resources on missing and exploited children.

The Code Adam Program identifies a 5 step process. These steps are as follows:

  1. If an individual reports that a child is missing, staff shall obtain a detailed and accurate description of the child.
  2. The trained staff uses whatever means of communication (in-house telephone, radio and/or an all-call page) to initiate the Code Adam alert. Staff will describe the child’s physical features and clothing. The alert will indicate to the designated employees to monitor front entrances while other employees begin looking for the child within the building.
  3. If the child is not found within 10 minutes, call law enforcement.
  4. If the child is found and appears to have been merely lost, the child shall be reunited with their parent/guardian.
  5. If the child is found accompanied by someone other than a parent or legal guardian, staff shall attempt to delay their departure without putting the child, staff, or patrons at risk or in harm’s way. Law enforcement should be notified and provided with detailed description of the person accompanying the child.

When approached by a parent/guardian that has become separated from their child, staff should ask the following to obtain a more thorough description of child:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • Eye and hair color
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Clothes worn (including shoes)
  • Any distinguishing characteristics
  • Location or area last seen

This information is useful for most retail stores in which it was developed and intended. However, we felt that more operational information was needed to adapt the Code Adam alert for our facility. We began by conducting an internal analysis of our building, staff and operational procedures — especially our Emergency Action Plan (EAP) to aid our committee with the necessary problem solving and decision making skills needed to bring this to fruition. Based on our research, we quickly realized that this process was much greater than we had anticipated and agreed that it was going to be an arduous task to implement without having to modify Code Adam and its detailed protocol to properly fit within the confines our building and day-to-day operation.

Our committee adapted/enhanced Code Adam to better suit our needs by:

  • Educating staff so that they know the difference between a missing child versus a lost child — staff must distinguish whether or not to enact Code Adam before initiating procedure. For example, a simple question such as asking the parent/guardian if they would like to have their child paged (via the intercom) — knowing their child is somewhere in the facility OR if the parent/guardian suddenly lost sight of their child and cannot locate them within the facility — fearing that their child is missing and need our staff to help search for child.
  • Determining key personnel, positioning and coordination
    * Strategically place staff at the predetermined positions outside facility – covering the exit routes/points leading outside (i.e. entrance/exit doors and stairwells)
    *Who is in charge from a coordination standpoint?
    .Establish written procedures, documentation and checklists to assist
    *Who handles the panicking parent/guardian?
  • Create “script” for any staff taking missing child report
  • Identify internal areas to sweep and the order — note and identify areas within the facility not commonly used or routinely frequented by staff
  • Coordinate internal and external communication when putting Code Adam in to action — especially radio etiquette to minimize traffic
  • Do not wait 10 minutes to call campus police — initiate immediately when Code Adam Alert commences
  • Establish reporting structure with campus Police
  • Train staff
    *Develop a consistent training tool suited to train staff as to all aspects of the procedure
    *Conduct mock and unannounced drills
    *Encourage staff to role play

Missing child procedures are really important! Protect your department by developing and implementing a well organized ‘Code Adam’ procedure to ensure the safety of young children within your facility. Minimize the risk associated with the threat of child abduction through safeguarding your facility and programs, and training your staff.

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