Psychosocial Support for Families of Missing Children

When a child goes missing, their parents’ hearts literally stop beating. Families of missing children face a myriad of problems; socio-cultural, economic, legal and mental well-being. Missing Child Kenya had the opportunity to represent the psychosocial agenda of missing children and their families at the REPSSI Psychosocial Support Forum 2017.

The bi annual forum held at Arusha Conference Centre, Tanzania from 04-06 September 2017 promotes awareness and understanding of the importance of psychosocial support (PSS) and shares knowledge on approaches to providing it. Themed “Equity, Equality for all Girls, Boys and Youth”, Psychosocial support (PSS) is a catalyst for the realization of equity and equality in the daily lives of girls, boys and youth as it helps them to develop resilience and thrive. There is an increasingly growing need to provide specialized and comprehensive psycho-social support for families with missing children.

In African communities, the topic of missing children and the impact on those left behind is little understood and rarely talked about. The initial search is often the part of the experience that is most reported. There is limited understanding about missing child’s issues and the experience of the families left behind. Not knowing whether a loved one is dead or alive is an agonizing experience that can paralyze the families of missing children and leave them susceptible to a variety of mental health and psychosocial difficulties.

The type of loss experienced when someone disappears is very different to other types of loss that an individual may experience in their life (for example, the death of a loved one). This is because there is often a feeling of finality when a death occurs, as it is often known what has happened to the person. The term often used in the literature to describe this unique type of loss, when someone is missing, is ‘ambiguous loss’. Dr Pauline Boss developed this term in the 1970s when she began working with families of soldiers missing in action. Pauline Boss has conducted ongoing research with families impacted by ambiguous loss. Pauline Boss has summarised ambiguous loss as: Where a loved one disappears in body or mind. She further defines ambiguous loss as: The most stressful type of loss; a type of loss that lacks answers, is unclear, indeterminate and often goes unacknowledged.

No family should have to deal with the trauma of a missing child alone. A family member’s ability to be strong and to help in the search for the missing child requires that they attend to their own physical and emotional needs. Families commonly experience a desperate need not to forget their loved ones. They actively struggle to keep their memory alive despite the psychological and psychosocial difficulties that may result.

Psychosocial and relational problems may also arise within communities of missing children. When this happens within a community, the families are often left completely isolated. On the night of 14–15 April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by Boko Haram, an extremist, Islamic, terrorist organization based in northeastern Nigeria. Over the last 3 years, some of the schoolgirls managed to escape, some were released and the fate of some is still unknown. The mental well-being of their families may have been lost in the shuffle as a lot of focus was on the missing children.

Social workers and other mental health and public health workers play a vital role in providing support to families of missing children. By connecting the families of missing children to local community support and collaborating with partnering agencies, they can provide an essential support network.

It is important to focus on the psychosocial well-being of the family while concurrently searching for the missing child in the hopes that the child can be returned to a healthy family.

#PSS4ALL #MissingChildKE

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