• Those who return can give valuable insights that could allow police to prevent future cases of missing people. (iStockphoto/Getty)
The first week of August marks National Missing Persons Week. For the majority of the week two issues will be prominent – images of those still lost and stories shared by those left behind. But is another story not being told?
By
Dr Sarah Wayland

3 Aug 2017 - 4:19 PM  UPDATED 4 Aug 2017 - 9:39 AM

Thirteen years ago I began working with families of missing people – first as a counsellor, then as the manager of trauma services and more recently as a researcher. I completed a PhD that attempted to understand what happens to hope for families when someone is missing long-term.

When it comes to the incidence of missing people in Australia I can rattle the statistics off as easily as the names of my children. Those statistics, from Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), tell us that 38000 reports are made each year about a person who is missing. That equates to more than 100 reports a day. The AIC share that more than 98 per cent of those people reported missing are found quickly. So if we understand the incidence of missing cases in Australia why aren’t we sharing the stories of what it means to come home?

To-date, my systematic review of the literature reveals that no Australian research focuses on understanding the population of returned missing people – other than knowing how many cases are resolved. My own work with families of missing people reveals the depths of unresolved losses, and the speed in which cases fall from public interest, but by the end of my PhD I realised that we don’t know the emotional, physical or economic costs that accompany going missing, from the returned missing persons perspective.

By the end of my PhD I realised that we don’t know the emotional, physical or economic costs that accompany going missing, from the returned missing persons perspective.

When we don’t know these costs we don’t understand the support needs for people when they come home.

A project undertaken in the UK has begun a conversation about this issue, one that is relevant here in Australia. The Geographies of Missing People project uncovered that in the UK a third of people reported missing will disappear again and that almost 80 per cent also report mental health concerns. If people receive little to no support when they return, organisations like the police and support workers, miss a chance to prevent a future disappearance by not including their voices. 

Reuben Scown, one of the few returned missing people whose stories have been shared in the Australian media, explains his absence five years ago during an episode of SBS Insight (below).

Within a room of families left behind (and various state and territory police investigating missing persons cases) he explains his week-long disappearance was prompted by ‘being in a really difficult headspace’ that he needed to clear.

Perhaps this is where the dearth of research becomes apparent? Where accounts, like those made by Reuben, give valuable insights that could allow police to prevent future cases of missing people. That by understanding why people left, how they survived while away and what made them come home we complete the picture of the impact of missing by seeing it from all sides – the missing person, the family and the police who investigate.

If people receive little to no support when they return, organisations like the police and support workers, miss a chance to prevent a future disappearance by not including their voices. 

Loren O’Keefe sees this complexity. She formed the Missing Persons Advocacy Network after the disappearance of her brother Dan in 2011. We connected shortly after her first plea to the media. I’ve supported and learnt from her since those early days - offering advice, supporting her media work and hugs when the outcome wasn’t what she and her family had been wanting. Dan was located deceased in 2016 despite a significant social media campaign to help bring him home. Her immersion into this world of ‘not knowing’ led to an understanding that the stories of missing people are not simply about being here or gone.

We need to welcome missing people home with an understanding of what might help keep them here. 

Her current focus, the Unmissables project,  connects creatives and writers with families of long term missing people to reinvigorate the community’s interest in long term missing person’s cases. Despite the continuing focus on supporting family members she is resolute in finding longer-term solutions “we should focus on returned people” she tells SBS. “Logic says to work backwards from a solution to find the problem, so its absurd to me that we’ve not yet implemented this process here in Australia.”

The stories of National Missing Persons Week include more than the sadness of being left behind. They include more than the photographs that adorn missing persons’ posters. We need to welcome missing people home with an understanding of what might help keep them here. 

For support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

You can find information on how to report a missing person here

Dr Sarah Wayland is a social worker and public health researcher with an interest in missing people. She has worked alongside hundreds of families of missing people in the counselling room and in collecting valuable research data about their experiences of hope.

She is passionate about creating a space for conversation about people who return. You can connect with her on Twitter to continue the conversation.

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