LOVE, a broken family relationship, a sense of adventure or even a kidnapping are some of the reasons for an increasing number of missing children in Slovakia and that is why it has joined in a campaign across Europe to raise awareness about a telephone number for reporting missing children: the 116-000 hotline. The campaign was initiated on May 25, International Missing Children’s Day, by an NGO called Missing Children Europe which also announced at the same time that it had launched new technology via Google to help in finding missing children.

The number of Slovak children who were reported missing in 2011, especially those younger than age 15, was considerably higher than in 2010. The Slovak police reported that there were 661 missing children under age 15 in 2011 compared to only 395 in 2010. But Jozef Kromerinský, the deputy director of the police presidium’s Search Department, told the Sme daily that one of the reasons for the large year-on-year increase is that children missing from foster homes and social service re-education homes are now also being counted in the statistics.

The European Federation for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children, usually referred to only as Missing Children Europe (MCE), released a video to promote the 116-000 hotline in the countries where it is available. The federation is an umbrella organisation of 28 national NGOs working to find missing children and prevent sexual exploitation of children. MCE also announced that it launched a new Google search application, according to its press release, that gathers together information about missing children to support efforts by parents, relatives and police to find them. It will be part of the websites operated by MCE members using embedded Google technology.

“It is essential for us to raise awareness of this phone number, as experience shows that the first hours following a child’s disappearance are of vital importance,” states Francis Jacobs, the president of MCE, on the organisation’s webpage.

Slovakia’s Child Safety Link

The 116-000 telephone number in Slovakia is operated by Child Safety Link, part of UNICEF. Anna Beňová, the spokesperson for UNICEF Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator that in addition to monitoring the European number for missing children in Slovakia, Child Safety Link provides the only non-stop advisory line here at 116-111 that connects with other social service assistance when parents or children are facing difficult issues.

On May 25 UNICEF’s Child Safety Link organised a roundtable in Bratislava to promote these two hotlines as essential tools to protect the rights of children. Participants in the roundtable discussion included representatives from the Slovak government, experts from the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child, members of the European Parliament, psychologists, and other experts who appealed for government support of this project, the TASR newswire wrote.

It was also announced that Child Safety Link has initiated cooperation with several Slovak travel agencies this year in which vacationing children will be given special wristbands with the 116-000 telephone number to help parents and their children while travelling, Gabriela Gubčíková, the coordinator of the Missing Children Europe project in Slovakia, told the Slovak Spectator. The wristbands also will have the name of the hotel where the children are staying so it could help a lost child to return there.

A children’s ombudsman?

Slovakia also has been criticised because the country has not initiated a Children’s Ombudsman to monitor children’s rights as has been done in some other European countries under the encouragement of the Council of Europe.

Beňová told The Slovak Spectator that UNICEF has been fighting for years to establish an independent institution to broadly enforce children’s rights, noting that children have specific needs because of their physical, psychological and emotional development and therefore protection of their rights should be specific. She said that many countries in Europe have initiated an office of a children’s ombudsman as a means for children to directly contact someone with authority on their own initiative when their rights are violated or abused, even without the consent of their parents or legal guardians.

Anna Záborská, a member of the European Parliament from Slovakia’s Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), does not agree that the country needs a children’s ombudsman.

“The situation of a family’s failure cannot be solved by a method in which you put a child against his or her parents, right from the beginning [of conflict],” Záborská told The Slovak Spectator.

Záborská said there are more effective tools than an ombudsman to help children, noting that there are organisations which try to work for the common interests of parents and children such as psychological services, the extended family, churches and crisis centres in extreme cases.

“I do not believe creation of another bureau is the way,” she stated.

Slovakia has had a citizens’ ombudsman, officially known as the Defender of Public Rights for more than a decade as the position is based on the country’s constitution and a law passed by parliament in 2001. Jana Dubovcová was appointed on March 28 this year as Slovakia’s ombudswoman for a five-year term and stated in a press release “that it is sad that in a small country like Slovakia protection of human rights would be further divided”. She urged that the country needs only one strong institution to defend all human rights and that could be her office, the Defender of Public Rights.

“I believe that we all want the same good thing and that is why we can find the will to do this,” Dubovcová stated, according to the press release.

Reasons children disappear

According to statistics released by the Slovak police corps, an average of 1,400 children and young adults have gone missing in Slovakia in each of the past five years but there is a 94 percent success rate in locating them and that 75 percent of the missing children and youths are usually found within one week. Among the 661 reported cases of missing children under age 15 in 2011, 650 have been found.

Most missing children are those who run away from home or a social service re-education facility and Gubčíková said their reasons can be a desire for adventure, a vision of a better life in another country, an abusive or poor family relationship, or inadequate living conditions.

Kromerinský of the police corps opined that the growing number of missing children can be attributed to them growing up faster than in the past.

“Nowadays, it is not a problem anymore when a 13-15 year-old child leaves and wants to take care of himself or herself,” said Kromerinský as an explanation for what he thinks is the most common reason for children to go missing.