When a child goes missing, there is no playbook

Story highlights

  • When a child goes missing, a community comes together
  • CNN editor Kristi Ramsay participated in search for missing girl
  • You have to ignore "what if" scenarios in order to stay focused, she says
  • Behind every missing child poster is a similar heartache

Most parents have felt the pain of having a missing child, if only for a few seconds.

They lose sight of their child at the park or at the grocery store or at the mall. Fortunately for most moms and dads, as soon as the knot forms in their stomach, they lock eyes with their kid.

But for the parents of the hundreds of thousands of children who go missing each year, that pain is much deeper; for some, there is never relief.

Working in the media, I've followed the cases that get national attention. I've watched the press conferences and the family statements.

Last week, however, I had the heart-wrenching experience of finding out what happens in between the media updates -- what it feels like when this is real life.

A sweet 14-year-old girl who babysat my son in the church nursery was missing.

She'd left home without her parents' permission to meet up with a boy she connected with online. That was on Monday. The boy said he never went to their rendezvous point, a park, and as of Thursday, the young girl still had not come home.

    The days in between were grueling for those involved in the search. I cannot fathom the depth of emotion her parents experienced.

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    Police never suspected foul play and thought the girl might have run away.

    That scenario was both frustrating and encouraging. It was frustrating because the family did not think she intended to be gone long. She didn't bring anything with her. No phone, no keys, no money. It was encouraging because it was the best case scenario. Maybe she "just" ran away. Maybe she was fine -- angry, confused, and unaware of how loved she is -- but fine.

    The conversations that unfolded were surreal. We talked to a detective about the possibility she was involved in sex trafficking or abducted or even worse. We had to avoid focusing on the "what ifs" in order to stay focused on the search.

    When word got out, the community rallied around the missing teen and her family. We plastered the city with fliers and canvassed her last known whereabouts. People who had never met the family joined the search. Dozens of homeless people in the area helped out. As the story spread on social media, people around the world sent words of support.

    Those of us on the ground did everything we could think of, all while having no idea what we were doing.

    Three days after the girl went missing, I was helping plan a prayer vigil. We didn't know where to begin. There was no guide. We "guessed" the parents should speak first, before things got too emotional. But what should they say? How do we get the word out? How long should it go? We didn't know the answers to these questions.

    The prayer vigil never happened. About an hour before it was to begin, the young girl was located. She had run away, and she was home now.

    For the media, that's where the story ends. A quick update to tell local TV viewers everything is OK.

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    For the friends assisting with the search, there was a huge sense of relief. There were hugs, tears, and then the exhaustion and gravity of the week hit. We laughed -- about how much trouble this girl is in, about how much wine we planned to drink.

    After this experience, I'll never look at news of a missing child the same.

    I will hold this experience close the next time an e-mail about a missing child crosses my inbox.

    I will remember the reality behind the story.

    Each missing child poster represents a family in heartache and a community at a loss.