When a child is reported missing, one officer begins searching the neighborhood and places the child likes to play, while another officer stays with the parents.
Minutes later, if the child can’t be found in the house or neighborhood, police will call in other officers and expand the search area.
And if 30 minutes pass, police will increase the search team by calling fire departments, police dogs, other police departments or state agencies. That’s what happened when a 3-year-old boy went missing from a Greenwood home last month, and police called in boats, search dogs, dive teams, firefighters and state police to help search for the boy, who was missing for six hours.
So far this year, local police have been called at least 35 times when a child went missing or was found alone outside. But in most cases, few know about what happened because the child is quickly found, so other police or fire departments are not needed to aid in the search.
That’s why police have guidelines for when to call in additional officers or other search teams when a child is reported missing, Franklin Police Department Lt. Kerry Atwood said.
On May 11, dozens of firefighters, police officers and volunteers gathered to search for 3-year-old Michael Stepien, who was found in a neighbor’s house just 200 feet away from his own home. The neighbors weren’t home. Before he was found, many worst-case scenarios were considered because he had been missing for hours. Among the fears: He could have been playing near a retention pond in the neighborhood and fallen in or been hit by a car.
Three days later, a toddler was found wandering a Franklin neighborhood and an officer was quickly able to return him home, without needing to ask for additional help.
Most children who go missing are at the age where they are learning how to open doors or locks and can walk on their own, Greenwood Police Department assistant chief Matt Fillenwarth said.
In some cases, parents have never seen their child open a door or unlock the door before, and then a second later, they’re gone, he said. Michael Stepien unlocked a deadbolt lock to his backyard — something he had never done before, his parents Brian and Jessica Stepien said.
Children who wander away from their parents typically are found within the first 30 minutes, Fillenwarth said.
In most cases, a child can be found in the house before a larger search team is needed, Atwood said.
When police are first called, one officer goes to the home to talk to parents and search the home, Atwood said. If the child can’t be found within the first few minutes, after looking in cabinets or crawl spaces in the home, then all available officers on-duty are called in to search through the neighborhood or surrounding areas, he said.
When a search goes beyond 30 minutes, police officers get more concerned and look at other possibilities, such as the child being injured or abducted, Fillenwarth said.
“When you have a missing child, all available officers respond to assist in the search,” Atwood said.
If the search goes beyond the subdivision or neighborhood, then the police will call the fire department or other agencies, like police dog teams. Bringing in other agencies is rare, Atwood said.
If a child is found wandering alone somewhere, typically two officers respond — one to look after the child and one to look for the parent, Atwood said. If an officer finds a child who is too young to tell the officer where home is, then police start going door-to-door in the neighborhood.
Even baby-sitting rules have changed, Cox said. In the past, older siblings would watch their younger siblings, even though they were considered children, too. The sheriff’s office has received calls from neighbors who saw a 12-year-old watching two younger siblings while the parents were out. These days, that isn’t considered as safe or responsible as it once was thought to be, he said.
If police officers receive a call about a child watching siblings, the police will go talk to the children, Atwood said. Depending on the maturity level of the child, the police officer will determine whether to call the Indiana Department of Child Services. In other cases, they might just call the parents and ask them a few questions to make sure all children are safe, Atwood said.
Just because a child is outdoors alone does not mean a parent or relative is not watching, Atwood said. A parent could be watching the child from indoors somewhere, though he does not recommend that, he said. Unless children are playing in a fenced-in backyard, Atwood suggests the parent stay outside with them.
In nearly every case where a child is missing or found alone, the police department contacts child protective services to make sure the child is safe in the home. In the case of the Stepien family, the caseworker double-checked doors and locks to make sure Michael never gets out again.
If officers suspect neglect or abuse, then the police department will start an investigation. The Whiteland Police Department, for example, reports every case to the department of child services and then leaves it up to the agency to investigate the family further, Chief Rick Shipp said.
About a half-dozen calls to the police have been made in the past month to report missing children or a child without parental supervision.
Here’s a breakdown of how many calls have been made since Jan. 1:
Johnson County Sheriff’s Office: 9 calls
Bargersville Police Department: 0 calls
Edinburgh Police Department: 6 calls
Franklin Police Department: 7 calls of missing children; 4 calls of found children
Greenwood Police Department: 12 calls
Whiteland Police Department: 2
If a child goes missing, here are the steps that police take to reunite the child with family:
- Typically, a child is reunited with the family within 30 minutes.
- Police officers usually keep the parents in their home, in case the child returns to the house, while other officers canvass the neighborhood.
- If an officer cannot find the child in the house or in the immediate neighborhood within minutes, other officers are called to expand the search.
- After about 30 minutes, other groups like K-9 units, dive teams or other police and fire departments are called in to help, depending on the situation.
- Once the child is found, every report is then sent to the Indiana Department of Child Services.