Supporting Victims in Missing Children Cases

How victim specialists work with families throughout an investigation

The Victim Services Division (VSD) informs, supports, and assists victims in navigating the aftermath of crime and the criminal justice process with dignity and resilience.

Our Victim Services Division provides support to child victims and witnesses of federal crimes, as well as their families and loved ones, through investigative forensic interviews and coordination with victim specialists who ensure all parties receive the proper care when faced with devastating challenges. The team is trained to ensure that any interactions with child victims or witnesses are tailored to the child's stage of development and to minimize any additional trauma to the child.

A missing child is someone whose whereabouts became unknown when they were aged 17 or younger. Victim Services Division personnel often support these cases even as time progresses and the victim who went missing as a child may have grown into an adult. Regardless of how the child initially went missing, victim specialists work with families and loved ones, as well as victims who have been found. 

"That family is missing their child during crisis. We would respond the same to that family," explained Jennifer Piero, a victim specialist at the FBI Cleveland Field Office. "If the FBI were involved in the case or asked by a police department to become involved, we would immediately start providing the family with updates and any services we can provide, as well as crisis intervention."

Victim specialists work with the families throughout the investigation—no matter how long—and are often present during a victim's recovery.

When victim specialists are assigned a case, they immediately start working with FBI agents, task force officers, and local law enforcement to meet the missing child’s family. These first interactions are the foundations for building trust with the families. The victim specialist looks into the following: 

  • Who are the missing child’s relatives? 
  • Are there siblings, and, if so, are they juveniles? 
  • Which family members should be interviewed for background information?

"Siblings may know different things than parents, so we have to look at setting up child interviews with our child and adolescent forensic interviewers, or CAFIs. The CAFIs gather information they might know, such as whether they might have witnessed anything the missing child had done or somebody they had talked to before disappearing," said Piero. 

"Then there are the assessments of the parents that the agents are working on to ensure that a parent is not potentially involved in the child’s disappearance," continued Piero. "Once they've ruled out that possibility, we continue to work with the family. We coordinate communication with the agents to ensure the family is the first to receive updates about the case."

Victim specialists also assess whether initial crisis intervention and counseling services are needed and ensure those resources are provided. As the investigation develops, victim specialists will work with FBI public affairs and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to alert the public about the missing child and ask for help finding them. 

One of NCMEC’s vital roles includes creating age-progressed photos of the victim. These photos are shared on NCMEC’s website and FBI missing person posters and disseminated to law enforcement and media outlets.

"We obtain photos of the victim’s family members—mom, the dad, any family members—to provide an image of what that child might look like at an older age," said Piero. "Once NCMEC creates that image, we take it to the family and have them give us some critiques or say what they think might be different, because they know their child best."

And as victim specialists help agents and task force offers gather and share information related to the case, they are simultaneously developing plans for if and when a victim is found and reunited with their family to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible. Some items to consider include: 

  • What are the logistics for reuniting the victim with their family? 
  • What are the logistics to ensure the victim receives medical assistance?  
  • What is the plan to help mitigate interactions with the community and the press? 

For instance, events like large celebratory gatherings and homecomings immediately after a successful recovery—though often well-intentioned—may be too overwhelming for the victim and their families at that time. Victim specialists will help manage these scenarios. In one case, victim specialists helped arrange the first reunification between the victim and their family at a location outside their town so they could have some privacy before facing the general public and media.

"We want to mitigate any types of secondary trauma, making sure that people aren't asking the victim questions that are not victim sensitive," said Catherine Connell, unit chief of the Child Victim Services Unit. 

What to Do If Your Child Goes Missing

The FBI has jurisdiction to immediately investigate any reported mysterious disappearance or kidnapping involving a child. Do not wait to report a missing child.

Call your local FBI field office or the closest international office. You can also contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-THE-LOST.

If your child is being abducted internationally by a family member and is not yet abroad, contact the U.S. Department of State.

Reuniting Loved Ones

The best possible outcome in a missing children’s case is finding a missing child alive.

"When a victim is found alive, being able to assist with the reunification of that victim to their family is huge. It's always such an honor to be able to assist in that," said Piero. "I think those cases are the most rewarding days of our careers."

However, a victim specialist’s work isn’t done once a victim has returned home. They continue to support the victim and their family as they restart their lives.

The circumstances that recovered victims are dealing with can vary. In some cases, victims kidnapped as children and held captive over time may have given birth while in captivity. Those offspring will enter society without any documentation of their birth and will need legal identification.   

For victims who may not have received any medical attention for years, they will need doctors, dentists, and mental health specialists, as well as health insurance. They may also need educational resources if they could not attend school during captivity.

For cases that garner national and international attention, victims and their families may need legal representation to help protect their privacy and navigate inquiries, offers, and interviews. Although victim specialists do not arrange for legal representation, they provide referrals.

"Legal representation is kind of a big thing that people don't necessarily think about, but that legal representation can help when interacting with organizations and individuals offering assistance and requesting interviews because we as the FBI don't want to be the ones filtering what they do or don't do or who's allowed to speak with them and who's not. That's not our role or place to do that," said Piero.

Piero described a well-publicized case in which multiple victims were recovered and taken to the hospital for an initial medical exam, and the press almost immediately flooded the scene. "I don't know how they got there so fast, but thousands were literally outside the hospital," she said.

As time goes on, one challenge some victim specialists may face is when there are no new leads in the investigation to share their family. "I think one of the hardest things for us is having no new information to give them when it's an extended case," said Piero. "We still visit them. We still call them. But being unable to give them anything new is sometimes difficult. And we know that's very hard for them to hear."

The Aftermath

When victims and families go through trauma, it permanently alters their lives.

There are a range of feelings—sorrow, hope, joy, and fear. Some families still await the return of their missing child. Some families learn that their loved one has been found, but they are no longer alive.

"When our agents or task force officers locate that child, we may be on the scene at the time, and then we have to go out and deliver a trauma notification to the family who we've been assisting potentially for years," said Piero. "We have to tell them that information. And every time we do that, we get various responses that we must be prepared for."

For other families, even if their loved one has returned, re-adjusting to life can be a challenge for all involved.

Piero explained that families reunited with their missing loved ones may feel scared. "They don't want something like this to happen again," she said. "They're holding on very tight to their newly recovered family member, who may now be an adult and is going through a lot as well. It becomes a trusted relationship where they often call us for advice or assistance."

Regardless of the outcome of a case, the relationships between victim specialists and victims and families can last many years. "They really just develop that bond," said Connell. "That victim specialist is aware what they’ve been through in many ways and has been there to support them."

"When a victim is found alive, being able to assist with the reunification of that victim to their family is huge. It's always such an honor to be able to assist in that. I think those cases are the most rewarding days of our careers."

Victim Specialist Jennifer Piero, FBI Cleveland

Advice for Parents and Caregiving on Protecting Your Child

Online safety and open communication are vital for protecting your child from harmful situations.

As parents and caregivers, learning about different online applications, social media, and video games can help you stay informed on what your child may be doing and who they may be interacting with.

In addition, open communication with your child and the reassurance that they can come to you if they’re in danger—rather than staying silent for fear of embarrassment or punishment—can also help protect your child from dangerous situations.

Connell explained: "It's difficult as your kids grow up, but always try to keep that communication open that, 'Hey, if somebody approaches you in your game or while you’re online and it doesn't seem right, you're not going to get in trouble. Come and tell mom and dad. We want to make sure you stay safe.' I think that's the key piece. When kids are threatened to have their technology taken away, their phones, their gaming systems, that's when they really don't want to tell parents because they don't want to have that happen."