Letter from the CEO
As we reflect on 2020, the strength and compassion of our global community of child defenders has never been more apparent. Together, we can cultivate hope amid even the most challenging circumstances.
This past year has been difficult for so many. The global pandemic has been especially devastating for children around the world – isolated at home and separated from traditional safety nets and guardians like teachers, classmates, and healthcare providers.
The pandemic also provided us a glimpse of what isolation feels like – physically, mentally, and emotionally. This has deepened our commitment to protect children through fostering new connections with, and delivering innovative support to, the caseworkers and law enforcement professionals who keep children safe.
ICMEC believes that we all share the responsibility to safeguard children. We know we cannot be successful in tackling this monumental issue if we act alone. That’s why we have worked over the last two decades to build a global community equipped with the tools, training, and resources to protect our children.
The Global Missing Children’s Network is a shining example of what can be accomplished through collaboration and cooperation. The 35 members of the GMCN set an example of child protection standards for the rest of the world.
In the pages that follow, we will celebrate what we have been able to achieve through our collective commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of all children.
With your engagement and support, we can, and will continue to, confront the issues and challenges that make the world’s children vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and going missing. Together, we are building a safer world for children.
President & CEO, the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC)
The Global Missing Children's Network
Every day, in every corner of the world, children go missing. Some are taken from their home, some are abandoned, and some are running away from a home that is not safe. Every missing child is inherently vulnerable to multiple and intersecting kinds of harm, including abuse, exploitation, or even death. We believe that every missing child deserves to be seen, searched for, and brought to safety.
For two decades, the Global Missing Children’s Network (GMCN) has united the global community in the search for missing children. Since its formation in 1998, the GMCN has grown to span 30 countries across five continents. The global network shares tools, training, and resources for governments, law enforcement, NGOs, and families on how to prevent and respond to a child going missing. Together, we are creating a safer world for every child and fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.
GMCN Impact by the Numbers:
- 30 member countries spanning five continents, safeguarding a population of 1.5 billion children under 18 in our member countries
- France’s Droit D’Enfance became the 30th member of the GMCN
- 19 GMCN member countries have Rapid Emergency Child Alerts
- 1,575 missing children recovered with assistance from the GMCNgine™ technology
The Power of Collaboration
In 2020, ICMEC partnered with GMCN members in Chile and Albania to assess their readiness for the implementation of an Emergency Child Alert System based on ICMEC’s Model Missing Child Framework. The partnership and implementation with both countries will continue in 2021.
During the pandemic, ICMEC hosted multiple webinars for GMCN members and other interested professionals on COVID-19’s impact on the response to, and investigation of, missing children, as well as the importance of risk assessment. The discussion on risk assessment, hosted in conjunction with AMBER Alert Europe, brought the European Police Expert Network on Missing Persons and GMCN members together to interact and collaborate.
The Impact of COVID-19
The global pandemic has been especially devastating to children around the world – isolated at home and more vulnerable to abuse and online exploitation.
The U.S.’s National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a frequent collaborator with ICMEC, received 21.7 million reports of suspected online exploitation in 2020 – a 4.7 million increase since 2019. In addition to increased risk online, experts are warning of a “silent pandemic” of abuse in the home. In March 2020, the U.S.’s national sexual assault hotline at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), reported a 22 percent spike in calls to their hotline from people younger than 18.
As the systems in place to protect children broke down during the pandemic, children, especially migrant children went missing. Children attending school remotely at home were physically separated from non-family adults who typically help monitor for signs of domestic violence and can intervene to protect children. Psychological stressors from prolonged lockdowns across the globe resulted in increased domestic violence, incidences of children running away, and suicide. Feelings of isolation, despondency, and depression increased among vulnerable children and many sought solace and friendship online, resulting in a skyrocketed number of cases of online exploitation.
Despite the challenges of the past year, we accelerated our work. ICMEC immediately focused on supporting front-line professionals in child protection through webinars, podcasts, videos, and live online training. Through these virtual learning sessions, ICMEC provided training to more than 45,000 law enforcement professionals, healthcare workers, and educators in 2020. We also equipped international schools and educators with more than 100 resources specifically addressing the challenges of COVID-19, including adapting to virtual learning environments and helping students cope with stress.
Our GMCN partners also accelerated their work, reaching children and offering support to child-protection specialists in new ways.
In Portugal, Instituto de Apoio à Criança increased the availability of their support hotline for children by extending hours and employing more operators to answer calls. They also established free, online psychological support for children and improved their partnership with the police to manage more calls and remain accessible 24/7.
In Greece, Smile of the Child designed and put into action two mobile applications: Childrescue and missing alert. Through these apps, everyone in areas nearby where a child has gone missing are informed about the case. The apps can also be used by the public to transmit information to local authorities to aid in the recovery of a missing child. Smile of the Child also designed a chat application - chat1056 - where children can receive online counseling and support services from licensed psychologists and social workers in a secure, anonymous messaging environment, free of charge.
In Lithuania, the Missing Persons Family Support Center implemented virtual legal, psychological, and social counseling, and continued their work in person where possible.
As we begin to see hope that COVID-19 will be controlled, we are in a unique position to continue increasing the breadth of our work by providing support and resources to child-protection professionals in new ways, creating new pathways for children to receive support, and ultimately expanding mechanisms and practices we utilize to defend children against the risk of exploitation, abuse, and going missing.
The Power of Prevention
Many of the GMCN members are tasked with responding to cases of missing children, while others work to prevent children from going missing. Our two GMCN partners in Italy, Telefono Azzurro and the Italian State Police, undertake both missing child response and prevention, and have done so with great success. The following story speaks to the power of prevention undertaken by our GMCN partners and the children they serve.
In May 2020, a young girl from Portofino, Lucia, contacted Telefono Azzurro by email and said:
I am 14 years old, and I am thinking about running away from home. I hate my family and I cannot handle it anymore. I can explode at any moment, no one cares about me and no one understands me. No one sees that I am feeling bad, my parents do not care. I do not know what to do.”
A hotline operator responded to Lucia’s email encouraging her to call the 116.000 hotline and speak in person to one of the operators. Lucia called and spoke to one of the operators, Gianna, about how isolated and alone she was feeling. Lucia felt that no one really cared if she stayed or left.
Gianna listened attentively and empathized with Lucia but most importantly, she helped Lucia to understand the risks of running away, what alternatives there may be, and what support was available to her. Gianna gave Lucia a list of resources for teens near Portofino that could help her work through her feelings of sadness and isolation and told her that she could call the hotline back whenever she needed to for additional support. In the end, Lucia decided not to run away and sought psychological support at the counselling center in her town.
Looking to the Future
2020 presented all of us with personal and professional challenges. We learned how quickly we can experience feelings of isolation and the very human need to be connected to other people. As adults, we learned to navigate new ways of connecting, while also acknowledging that a Zoom Happy Hour was no real substitute for the comradery of the local pub. These were, and continue to be, hard lessons, but I believe they can help us better understand that a great many children regularly experience social isolation and struggle to meet the need for human connection even during the best of times. I know that we can use this new-found awareness to better prevent vulnerable children from going missing. As we look forward to the next year and beyond, we can improve our ability to cooperate and collaborate, and expand our capacity to tackle the issues that cause children to go missing.
In the coming year, the Global Missing Children’s Centre will examine three key points around missing children: how do we define a missing child, how many children truly go missing every year around the world, and what kind of harm do children experience while they are missing. We must embrace a more robust definition of what missing means so groups of children often overlooked in more traditional definitions of missing, can finally receive the attention and support they need to find a safe, appropriate, and permanent home. The expansion of the definition of a missing child will also allow us to quantify the true scope of this global problem. We know that far too many children who go missing are never reported to law enforcement or remain unaccounted for.
I look forward to working with our members on these, and other projects over the coming year and applaud your dedication, commitment, and resolve to bringing children to safety.
Felicity Sackville Northcott, PhD, Director, The Global Missing Children’s Centre, ICMEC