Nairobi, Kenya: Two weeks ago, parents gathered in Nairobi hoping against hope that they would set their eyes on their lost children. As they held a vigil, they spoke of their expectations and what they had gone through in the search.
They said the pain of not knowing where your child is, is so much that sometimes you are compelled to hide your agony, grief and despair.
Apparently, there are many missing children across Kenya, and some cases have not been solved for decades.
According to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, eight million children go missing annually which translates to nearly 22,000 children every day around the world.
In Kenya the magnitude of cases of missing children is not known. According to a 2007 Unicef study, more than 200,000 children are housed in children’s homes across the country while another 250,000-300,000 are living and working on the street. Others are unaccounted for, housed by strangers or engaged in harmful and illegal servitude.
A baseline survey by the Centre for Missing Children Kenya shows that 710 cases of missing and lost children were recorded at police stations in Nairobi in 2012/13.
Many more cases are never formally reported nor recorded.
Since last year, 1,803 cases of children in need of care and protection, under which category lost and found children fall, were handled by the Children’s Court. Out of these, 864 were released to parents and guardians, 115 were repatriated to their home towns and 824 were committed to various children’s homes.
Lost and unidentified children are susceptible to higher risk of abuse, exploitation, trafficking or even death.
Child trafficking for child labour, sex trade, child pornography or other forms of exploitation are receiving global attention, and Kenya has been identified as a hub.
“Other sinister crimes such as human organ harvesting and ritual killings seem to have a direct correlation om emerging abduction and child stealing trends. Where children have parental care, how well are they protected or secured?
“Are there the emerging phenomena that are increasing children’s vulnerability? Do we all have the necessary tools and policies to guarantee the security of children?” posed Justice William Musyoka of the Family Division Court.
He said children who are lost and found do find some protection in law adding that while the Judiciary will do its part to ensure that the rights of children are protected, the society needs to do more.
“Child security and protection needs to be reverted to the days when it was the business of everyone in the village,” he said.
The Constitution and the Children’s Act mandate the Government to make efforts in tracing lost children and to provide the best alternative care to such a child.
However, there are no standardised policy guidelines to aid in the search for missing children.
As is often the case, police are often blamed for not doing enough to trace missing children. Once the complaint has been filed and booked in the Occurrence Book, desperate parents are left hanging.
Some parents say they have found police reluctant to help them, while some police officers wrongly conclude that the missing children as runaways; others refuse to file reports or treat the cases as nuisances.
As a result, a family almost single-handedly goes to great lengths, expense and trauma in search of the lost child.
“Our laws do not define who a missing person is and how these cases must be handled. It is left at the discretion of the concerned police officer. In most instances, you cannot blame a police officer for not doing their part, because they do not have a guideline and at times do not know what to do or how to handle such cases,” says Irene Ekonga of the Centre for Missing Children Kenya (CMCK).
She says there is need for a joint multi-agency approach including the creation of policy guidelines for the management of these cases as well as specialised training on how to handle cases of missing and lost children.
“As a long term solution to solve lost and found cases, there is need for guidelines. It is easier to trace missing and lost children with more concerted efforts,” says Ekonga.
Joan Birika, the director of CMCK has cautioned parents that when they have an intuition that a child’s absence is not regular, they should act immediately by conducting a local search before reporting the matter to the police.
“Every minute a child is missing, they are exposed to harm. There is no rule to wait 24 hours before reporting, every minute counts,” she says.
She points out that parents must go out of their way to study what to do in the event that their children should go missing.
Parents should know the nearest police station, chief’s camp, children’s department, their children’s friends and where they play.
“Parents should make sure their children know their last names or family name, name of the parent, where they live, their school name and even the phone number. They should find creative ways to make sure children retain this vital information so as to draw them when needed,” she adds.
Parents with lost children should look for them in various children’s home.
“There are families who do not know where their children are yet we have children’s homes clogged,” says Birika.
Two weeks ago, CMCK held a vigil of hope, love and light at the Chief Justice’s Gardens on the Supreme Court Grounds, which brought together families of missing children among other stakeholders. They held prayers and lit candles in honour of missing children and their families.
The event was meant to draw attention to the plight of missing children and their families and to celebrate institutions that lend a helping hand including child protection institutions, media houses and mobile telephony companies.