Missing Persons: Incidence, Issues and Impacts

Article excerpt

Each year, around 30,000 people are reported missing in Australia - one person every 18 minutes. The 30,000 people exceed the total number of victims, reported to police for homicide, sexual assault, and unarmed robbery combined. Nationally, the rate of missing people reported to the police is 1.55 per thousand, and it varies considerably around Australia with South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have rates double the national average. Children and young people having rates three times those of adults.

Fortunately, nearly all are found, and 86 per cent are located within one week. The social and economic impacts on families, friends, and the community as a whole are profound.

It is estimated that each missing person costs the community about $2,360 - in search costs, loss of earnings while family members look, and health and legal costs. For 30,000 people, this adds to over $70 million per year.

Relatively little is known about the reasons people go missing, the characteristics of missing persons, and the impact of their disappearance on the community. In 1998, the National Missing Persons Unit (NMPU.) at the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence commissioned an independent study to address this information gap and to identify service delivery needs for those affected by the phenomenon of missing persons. This paper summarises that report.

Adam Graycai


The study was based on various sources of information. These included an analysis of missing person statistics provided by Australian police and by three non-government tracing organisations - the Salvation Army, Australian Red Cross, and International Social Service (Australia) over a three-year period. A detailed analysis was carried out on 505 missing person police reports, representing all missing persons reported to Australianpolice during a single week at the mid-point of the three-year period. A national survey of families and friends of 270 people reported missing to police was conducted, using an in-depth structured telephone interview. Consultations were held with over 90 organisations with an interest in missing person issues. The also included an assessment of the economic and social costs of missing people in the Australian community.


Unfortunately, statistics on the incidence of missing persons reported to police across Australia are not routinely compiled, and there is no reliable national trend information available. The rate of missing persons reported to police over the study period 1995-97 was constant at 1.55 per 1,000 people in the general population each year, but varied between jurisdictions and according to age and gender (see Table 1). In 1997, children and young persons were reported missing at a rate over three times higher than adults. Adult females showed lower rates than adult males, while female children and young persons showed higher rates than their male counterparts. In 1997, the rates of missing persons in South Australia and Australian Capital Territory were well above the national average, but this was interpreted as a function of different reporting practices in those two jurisdictions (such as taking reports by telephone) rather than to real jurisdictional differences in susceptibility of people going missing.

Including missing persons reported to the three non-government tracing organisations, the rate of missing persons is 1.61 per 1,000 people. In comparison, the rate of road traffic accident deaths in 1995 was 0.1 per 1,000 people and non-fatal road traffic accidents requiring hospitalisation was 1.2 per 1,000 people. The suicide rate was 0.1 per 1,000 people and other crimes, such as robbery and sexual assault, were reported to police at a rate of 0.9 per 1,000 people and 0.7 per 1,000 people respectively in 1995 (Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, cited in Mukherjee and Gray car 1997). The incidence of missing persons is at least as high as that of other issues that generate far more media attention and public interest. …