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Speech: Missing Children: Taking stock and future-proofing the hotlines

Commission Européenne - SPEECH/13/503   04/06/2013

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European Commission

Viviane Reding

Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner

Missing Children: Taking stock and future-proofing the hotlines

Third annual conference on missing children and 116000 hotlines

Brussels, 4 June 2013

MAIN MESSAGES

In 2011, a quarter of a million cases of missing children were officially reported in the EU.

It is now six years since the adoption of the Commission Decision on the 116 telephone numbers and the introduction of the 116000 hotline. We are now, finally, very close to completing our mission our: "one number, one service across the EU".

There are now 23 hotlines operational and a further three [Lithuania, Latvia and Sweden] will be launched shortly.

That leaves Finland as the only Member State which has not come close to achieving this goal. Unfortunately, this undermines the efforts and commitments made by all others.

I urge Finland to […] use the existing experience [of other Member States] to implement the hotline as soon as possible.

Now that we have almost reached the goal of having the hotline operational across the EU we must focus even more on the quality of the service provided.

The most effective hotlines work in close cooperation with state and social services. A missing child case is fully resolved when the root cause for the disappearance is tackled. Missing children hotlines must be part of an integrated child protection system.

Honourable Members,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank Vice-President Roberta Angelilli for her hard work for vulnerable children and their families. The three on-going studies on missing children, children in judicial proceedings and on child participation in the EU would not have been possible without the support of the European Parliament.

I would also like to thank the Irish Presidency for co-organising this conference. Moreover, I congratulate Ireland on strengthening the protection of children by including a reference to the rights of the child in your Constitution. Congratulations also on making the 116000 hotline fully operational. Ireland is leading by example.

Finally I want to thank Missing Children Europe and all your members who are gathered here today. Over the past years I have had the privilege to learn about your work and I can only applaud your dedication. Since 2007, you were led by one of the great champions of the cause, your president Sir Francis Jacobs. Sir Francis, your members admire your vision, diplomacy, and pragmatism. Extending Missing Children Europe's membership, the development of the 116 000 network, and the establishment of the European Financial Coalition are unprecedented achievements. I want to thank you personally for your commitment to missing children and for reminding us of the importance of the cause we are all here to drive forward.

With today's conference we mark the recent International Day of Missing Children and reaffirm our commitment to help missing children by providing a high quality service in all Member States.

It is now six years since the adoption of the Commission Decision on the 116 telephone numbers and the introduction of the 116000 hotline. Two years ago, the deadline for the transposition of the Universal Service Directive expired. In November 2010, I presented a Communication on the 116000 hotlines for missing children. I called on Member States to implement the missing children hotline as a matter of priority. Families and children are increasingly mobile within the European Union. I wanted to ensure that the same high quality service is offered throughout the Union. This is crucial for families in times of distress when a child goes missing. The hotlines are a tool for finding missing children, as was reiterated in the EU Agenda for the rights of the child. We are now, finally, very close to completing our mission our: "one number, one service across the EU".

State of play

Since the last time we met, six new hotlines have been launched. There are now 23 hotlines operational and a further three will be launched shortly.

Twenty-six Member States - plus our new Member State Croatia - have assigned the number to an operator and those where the hotline is not yet operational have committed to do so in the very near future.

That leaves Finland as the only Member State which has not come close to achieving this goal. Unfortunately, this undermines the efforts and commitments made by all others. This hotline can help to save lives and provide support to missing children and to those whose children go missing. But it only works if we ALL join forces and do our share.

Funding

Funding has been a crucial element in getting the hotlines up and running. The funding under the DAPHNE III programme has already provided support to Member States and non-governmental organisations. The money helped to improve the functioning of these hotlines and to establish new ones. For 2013-2014, four and a half million euro were earmarked for the 116 000 hotlines.

The Commission received 23 applications for funding from NGOs from as many Member States and approved funding for 17 of them. Unfortunately, demand exceeds the funds available.

As a direct result of Commission funding, I expect the launch of new hotlines in Lithuania, Latvia and Sweden this year, as well as operational improvements to existing hotlines.

Data on missing children

With the support of the European Parliament, the Commission is conducting a large-scale study on missing children. The aim of the study is to collect reliable data on how many children disappear in Europe, what the underlying causes are and Member States' response to the problem. I want to thank all NGOs and Member States who contributed to this work.

The data collected for the study are striking. In 2011, a quarter of a million cases of missing children were officially reported in the EU. Most children who go missing are runaways, but we do not have extensive data on this phenomenon. The most precise data concerns cross-border abductions by parents and third parties. This data is better because of the coordination mechanisms abductions trigger. In 2011 there were two thousand six hundred such cases. In general, the study uncovered gaps in data on the children themselves, why they go missing and what support is provided when they return.

Data supplied by the 116 000 hotlines themselves shows that the hotlines sometimes handle a very small proportion of cases in their country. This is an indication that there is still a lot of work to be done to make the hotlines known to the general public.

We will now analyse the data with a view to improving our response when children go missing anywhere in the EU. We will publish the results this summer.

Quality of the 116 000 hotlines

Now that we have almost reached the goal of having the hotline operational across the EU we must focus even more on the quality of the service provided.

In the past year the hotlines have strengthened their capacity, trained their staff, and raised the overall quality of their services. In Romania, for example, the hotline organised joint prevention campaigns with the police, raising awareness and enhancing cooperation. In the Netherlands, the service was extended to ensure full 24 hour availability. In Italy, follow-up care after the return of the child was developed and in Slovakia a joint information campaign was organised with travel agencies for families travelling abroad. Cross-border cooperation and an exchange of good practices among the hotlines are increasing. This is especially important as there are more and more cases of children who go missing abroad.

Social media and the internet are playing an increasingly important role, a topic discussed this morning as well.

We all know that it is not always easy for children to pick up the telephone and talk to a complete stranger about sensitive issues. That is where an extension of the hotline service into the online world can be useful. It is yet another tool that can help us to reach children in distress.

But this is not enough to ensure a sustainable and effective service. The hotlines are an entry point towards an individualised response in the Member States. We must ensure strong cooperation among government services, police authorities, social welfare services, health authorities and the 116 000 hotlines. Only then can we have an adequate response to finding missing children and give them the support they need.

Examples of real cases

Let me give you some examples of real cases where the 116 000 hotlines helped children and their families:

When a 12-year-old girl disappeared from a mental health institution in Belgium, Child Focus volunteers put up posters in shops the next morning, which led to a call to the 116 000 hotline from someone who had seen the girl. The police found her shortly afterwards. This is an example of a very successful cooperation between the hotline, volunteers, the general public and the police which brought about a quick return of the child to a safe environment.

In another case a UK national residing in Hungary contacted the hotline as his wife had left home with their three-year-old daughter, destination unknown. He stayed in contact with the hotline service for several months where he received emotional support as he was emotionally distressed. The hotline also provided him with extensive support in dealing with the authorities and the social services as he spoke little Hungarian. After the police ascertained the mother's whereabouts, the hotline helped both parents accept mediation. Eventually they agreed on the terms of custody and visiting rights for the father.

Future-proofing the hotlines

Established hotlines must further develop their specialist services to help children in distress or in danger. The most effective hotlines work in close cooperation with state and social services. They do not compete with them. They put the best interests of the child first. They seek to better understand and address the root causes for children disappearing. They help families to deal with the authorities. They share experience, expertise and tools. A missing child case is fully resolved when the root cause for the disappearance is tackled. Missing children hotlines must be part of an integrated child protection system.

Conclusion

I am delighted to see the progress that has been made over the past year. The results of our collective efforts are starting to show.

We must encourage and assist Member States that have not yet implemented the hotline. We can help to remove the obstacles they are facing and share good practice. Learning from the solutions found in other Member States, sometimes even your direct neighbours, is essential. I urge Finland to do exactly that, and use the existing experience to implement the hotline as soon as possible.

Thank you for your attention.


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