Investigating Disappeared Individuals

Investigating disappeared individuals is a critical step in any missing persons case. Depending on the outcome of this process, the search could either focus on locating a person alive or identifying a dead person (forensic identification).


A prevention interview should be conducted and recorded as soon as possible. This should include details of any sightings.


Regardless of whether the search is humanitarian (focused on locating and identifying individuals) or criminal (with the aim of bringing perpetrators to justice), it should start with background research. This includes collecting and analyzing information about the event(s) in question and its context (e.g., location of missing persons, locations of bodies or sites containing unidentified remains).

This is essential to avoid duplication of efforts as the search progresses. For example, the occurrence of homonyms (names with the same spelling) can result in duplicate cases that may hamper the investigation. Therefore, it is important to establish a system of file management that assigns a unique case number to each person reported as missing.

The next step is to identify potential matches through comparison of secondary data. This includes analyzing medical and family history, lifestyle habits and other circumstantial information about the missing person. This information will help investigators narrow down the search area and better formulate lines of inquiry. This will also help in reconstructing networks and exploiting non-explicit relationships between the missing individual and other persons.


Often, the disappearance of an individual is a tragedy that has ripple effects, touching family members, communities, and even entire nations. Disappearances are triggered by many factors, including natural disasters, migration, political repression, and war.

One of the most effective tools to aid in a search for missing persons is a timeline, which paints a picture of events leading up to an event. A timeline serves as a backbone for an investigation, and it can also help identify discrepancies that could lead to a breakthrough in the case.

While most cases of missing persons are solved within a few days or weeks, there are some that can go on for months and even years. This can put a financial strain on families, as they may need to hire private investigators or take time off work in order to keep searching. In addition, they may need to travel in order to share information with other law enforcement agencies. This can also cause emotional stress for families who do not know when their loved ones are going to return.

Identifying Characteristics

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) defines a missing person as “a person who is absent from his or her accustomed network of personal and social relationships to such an extent that people within that network define the absence as interfering with their performance of expected social responsibilities” (ACPO, 2005: 8). Although most missing persons return soon after going missing, some are still unaccounted for. These long-term outstanding missing persons tend to be male, adults and over-represented by individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Research shows that these characteristics can affect the willingness of citizens to search for a disappeared individual. For example, Lam et al. (2023) found that gender and background influence the likelihood of spontaneous citizen searches.

The California Department of Justice has a Missing Persons DNA Program that helps identify unknown live and deceased persons through comparison of dental/body X-rays, physical characteristics and fingerprints. This service is free to families and law enforcement agencies. In addition to DNA testing, the program has a dental identification unit that queries various governmental and private databases to find any information that may assist in identifying the missing individual.

Getting the Media Involved

The heightened awareness brought on by media coverage is one of the best ways to generate leads. However, it is important to work with law enforcement before publishing anything that could jeopardize the investigation or further endanger the disappeared person.

It is also important to report the disappearance to law enforcement as soon as possible. This will allow them to begin investigating immediately. It is also important to provide law enforcement with all available information about the missing person, including their physical description, last known whereabouts, and any other relevant circumstances.

The minimal coverage that minority missing persons receive has a negative impact on their case, shifting public perception and decreasing the likelihood of their cases being prioritized by law enforcement agencies. It is important to fight this type of implicit bias through anti-bias training and ensuring that the voices of minorities are heard. By providing a larger platform for these voices, individuals can ensure that those affected by a disappearance are not forgotten. They can also increase the chances of finding their loved ones by empowering them to take action in their own communities.