(NEXSTAR) – It’s a parent’s worst fear: You’re shopping for groceries, or you’re spending the day at a park with the family, when suddenly your kid goes missing.
In many cases, you’re able to locate your child within a few seconds, in an adjacent aisle or around a nearby corner. But other times, those seconds continue to tick away and panic takes hold.
“That is the nightmare of every single parent out there,” said Callahan Walsh, a child advocate and executive director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Walsh, whose parents Revé and John Walsh co-founded the NCMEC after his brother Adam Walsh’s abduction and murder in 1981, is well aware of the anguish parents experience after a child goes missing. That’s why the NCMEC has worked to help recover nearly 4,000 missing children over the last four decades, and why the organization operates programs aimed at fighting child exploitation and supporting the parents of those missing kids.
The NCMEC also provides resources for educating parents and children on what to do in the first moments following a child’s disappearance.
It’s in those moments, Walsh said, that parents need to try to stay calm.
“It’s a tough thing to say to a parent who is looking for their child, but it is important so they can accurately provide the descriptor information, and actively be part of the search,” Walsh told Nexstar.
Descriptions of a missing kid should include things like height, weight, hair color, eye color and, “most importantly, what that child was wearing,” he said.
That last bit, in fact, is exactly how a mom on TikTok claims she recently found her lost daughter at a children’s play center. That mom, Krista Piper Grundey, recently went viral after sharing the story of how she located her 3-year-old by shouting out what the girl was wearing, rather than the girl’s name.
Grundey herself said she learned the trick from another mom who had temporarily lost her child at a grocery store.
“I stopped calling out her name and I started yelling ‘Little girl! Pink shirt, pink Minnie Mouse shirt!’” she said in her TikTok video, which has been viewed more than 600,000 times since last month.
She said the other moms immediately knew what to look for. Within minutes, a woman had located her child.
“I probably looked like a crazy person, but it got the job done,” Grundey said.
Walsh commended Grundey — and the mom who shared the initial idea — for spreading the importance of relaying this kind of descriptive information.
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But he stressed that there are other important tips for parents or guardians who find themselves stuck in the same situation.
“It’s probably best to contact a store employee,” Walsh tells parents who may be bringing their children into stores, malls, sporting venues or play centers. If two parents are present, he said, one can run off to alert the staff. But if only one parent is present, it’s best to stay nearby in case the missing kid comes back.
“Call your child’s name, solicit help [from other adults] and ask for a store employee to be brought to you,” Walsh said.
If necessary, a sole parent can also walk toward the front of the store until an employee can be informed of the issue.
Once a store associate is available, Walsh and the NCMEC say it’s important to provide a detailed description of the child’s appearance, down to the specific pieces of clothing the child was wearing when they went missing.
“Store employees can then be activated to go search for the child,” said Walsh, who noted that many major retail outlets are already trained in “Code Adam,” a program of safety protocols named for Walsh’s brother Adam.
Walsh also advised that parents call law enforcement “right away,” rather than wait to report the missing child until a preliminary search is complete.
“[Police] would much rather get that second call, that the child has been found, rather than a call saying a child has been missing for an extended period of time,” he said.
It also helps to be proactive before heading out into a crowded public place, Walsh added.
“If you are going anywhere … an amusement park or sporting event, you can snap a quick picture when you get out of the car,” he said. “Not only is that a great keepsake, it’s an up-to-date photo of that child, of what they were wearing that day.”
“That picture could be absolutely instrumental in the recovery and safe return of that child,” Walsh said.
Proactive parents can also take advantage of the NCMEC’s KidSmartz and NetSmartz resources, to learn the proper protocol for preventing abduction or online exploitation — and to teach their kids.
Being educated on the proper protocols, after all, is perhaps the most important tool for parents hoping to locate their children.
“In most cases of children going missing in stores, it’s not an abduction, but rather a kid who wandered away or hid in some clothing racks,” Walsh acknowledged. “Still, it’s a scary situation.”