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Trying to track the hundreds of missing children and adults in Australia is fraught for police and devastating for families. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The difficulties and despair of searching for missing persons

Missing children Serena and Thomas Speath (left) and the last picture of Dan O’Keeffe taken before he disappeared (right).
Credit: SUPPLIED

Harry Speath met his second wife dancing. He had once performed ballet, and was now passionate about Latin dance. This was in 2008 in Brisbane, before the abduction, and it must have been dizzying to find one passion within another. Jane Adare gave birth to their daughter, Serena, and the couple married in 2009. Serena was soon followed by Thomas, whom his father would describe as a practical young man. 

But the marriage soured. Speath believed the divorce proceedings were undertaken in good faith. It was painful, of course, but he was adamant that the children have access to both parents. “Children do best when they have the supportive involvement of both parents,” Speath tells me. “I thought we had agreed on this.” 

On December 5 last year, Adare picked up their children. Speath hasn’t seen them since. The Federal Circuit Court issued a recovery order early this year. For Speath, there was nothing suspicious in Adare’s behaviour. Nothing that suggested she was preparing to abscond with their children. “I was optimistic about our reconciliation,” Speath says. “I never expected this. And unfortunately I’m now at the mercy of the system. I use the remedies of the system. But these children deserve both of their parents.”

It is suspected Adare headed to south-east Queensland, perhaps seeking the protection of sympathetic friends and family. But the Australian Federal Police (AFP) emphasise to me that this is now a national search, that Adare and the children may well be living interstate. Speath is also painfully aware that Adare holds a British passport. His suffering is self-evident, but its specifics are likely ignored. Apart from the profound hurt of separation is the unknowing. Speath worries about his children’s physical and psychological care, and for the education they’re missing. His children’s development – intellectually and emotionally – is at a touchingly vulnerable stage. At this age they are suggestible and credulous, and highly absorbent of trauma. 

Police are aware that contributing to this trauma to children are the malicious and self-serving rationalisations they may hear from their abductor. “This separation is very harmful to children,” Rebecca Kotz, the head of the AFP’s National Missing Persons Co-ordination Centre, tells me. “In addition to being kept away from friends and family, they are often lied to.”

Similarly, these distorted stories may be used to retain sympathisers. The absconding parent understands that he or she must not trigger detection, estranging them from bank accounts, certain employment and other routine and sustaining aspects of our lives. The propaganda is deployed upon the confused children as it may be upon those the parent becomes dependent on to maintain a shadow life. 

Harry Speath is, naturally, sombre. His sentences are strained, but they all declare a bottomless feeling for his kids. There is tenderness to his speech. He also seems bewildered – stunned – and is grateful for the support of his sister and close friends. “All I can do is hope,” he tells me. “My feelings oscillate. I have good days and bad days. But you just keep getting out of bed.” 

Speath has kept his children’s Christmas presents. They have now also been gone for their birthdays. Speath is tired. It’s a big country to search for two little kids. 

Nebulous figures

The Federal Circuit Court issues about 420 recovery orders each year. These orders are a civil matter, but do authorise the arrest of persons without a warrant. Speath wonders if cases such as his should be made criminal, and Kotz admits that it not being a criminal matter can be a hindrance at times. The children involved in recovery orders, such as Thomas and Serena, are not counted among the missing. Theirs is a discreet statistic, separate from the 35,000 missing persons reports filed each year. Of that overwhelming number, about 95 per cent are found within a week. The figures, though, are a little rubbery. From the 35,000, you can subtract the number of people who go missing more than once a year. Sorrowfully, you can add the unknown number who have not been reported missing. They are the “unmissed amongst the missing”, as Scottish journalist Andrew O’Hagan once put it. 

Studies of the missing reaffirm three categories of person most vulnerable – the young, the elderly and the mentally ill. Naturally, not all of those categories are mutually exclusive. The elderly may vanish due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. The young may be exiled by domestic abuse, depression or desperation. Schizophrenics comprise a large portion of the missing; others are voluntarily shedding their identities, undertaking the enormous task of expunging a recorded life. Some are subject to foul play, though the number of disappearances deemed “suspicious” is very low. 

This isn’t an exhaustive survey of the conditions in which people go missing, nor does it touch the particulars of each disappearance. “Missing persons” is a large and ungainly term – myriad circumstances shelter beneath its umbrella. And currently there are thousands of long-term missing. Both here and not here, essentially frozen in time for loved ones who may thaw the image with countless fantasies, hopeful and despairing, each updating the pictures in their mind. 

“It’s weird to think I don’t know what my brother looks like,” Loren O’Keeffe tells me. “It’s been four years. Does he have a beard? Is he balding now? Does he have grey hairs?”

On July 15, 2011, Dan O’Keeffe left the family home in Geelong and vanished. He was 24 years old. He left with little – no bag, no wallet, no identification. He had only his mobile phone in his pocket, which quickly lost its battery charge. Athletic and handsome, Dan was also suffering debilitating depression. The family had been concerned for some time. Six months later, there was a confirmed sighting of him in Queensland. And then the trail went cold. 

“We still get leads every week,” Loren tells me. “Photos and videos. We got one this week actually, from a woman. She had used her phone to record a small video of a man she thought might be Dan in a supermarket. It did look like him, I admit. But it wasn’t. But to know that Dan has not been forgotten by strangers out there, that there are people thinking of him and trying to help us, that means a lot.”

Two years after her brother’s disappearance, Loren established the Missing Persons Advocacy Network. She says it’s a gift, something she never knew she could do but that now seems perfect. 

Ambiguous loss and legality

The word “ambiguity” recurs with missing people. There is ambiguous loss – the sickly, suspended bereavement – and there is legal ambiguity. To go missing is not a crime, but reports of missing people are naturally referred to police. Depending upon the designation of the disappearance – suspicious or not – the report is simultaneously a police matter and it is not. Which is not to say police do not investigate non-suspicious disappearances. They do. It’s that for non-suspicious disappearances there is an inherent friction between families and police. Authorities will conduct searches and investigations, but families may often feel that not enough is being done. It appears tragic – two sides opposed by equally defensible positions. 

“The ambiguity is a massive problem,” Loren O’Keeffe tells me. “Before Dan went missing, the only time I’d seen a missing person’s poster was at a police station. That’s where the resources are. But they need to be shared. I want a collaborative approach – between media, all emergency services, public infrastructure, private companies who may donate time or advertising. Searches are incredibly resource heavy and expensive. And I’ll say this: any missing person is potentially suspicious, right?” 

Probably better than anyone, the AFP’s Rebecca Kotz understands this friction. She is not a sworn officer and liaises between police and families. “It’s a fact that people can leave their lives. They’re not missing to themselves. But I know it’s difficult for families. We need to humanise the situation with this question: what if it were you? I know that if it was me, if one of my children were missing, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do. Using social media, turning over every table. I’d stop at nothing. But having said that, there’s plenty of resources out there for people.”

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people attracted to the media limelight generated by these stories and willing to exploit families’ desperation. In the case of the O’Keeffes’, self-described psychics and private investigators began making contact. “PIs came to us,” Loren remembers. “There was a lot of media attention. Psychics, too. We did use one investigator. He was useless. But you’re really vulnerable and desperate. You’ll try anything. And yes, it’s exploitative. Dan’s disappearance had become a big news story, and these people wanted a part of it. Wanted to feature on our websites, or to boast about it on theirs. I knew what they were doing. I could see through it, but still. We were desperate.” 

Kotz tells me it’s similar for all such cases, and says the Morcombe family – whose son Daniel was abducted and murdered in 2003 – were faced with all sorts of bad faith. Aggressive private eyes hawking their services, psychics, frauds, those providing vexatious information and private investigators aggressively peddling themselves. “They were faced with every scumbag on the earth,” Kotz says, “and they had to wade through all this crap. My advice to families is: report it to police.”

There is another question, though: At what point does hope become harmful? When does it wither – or do we have to quell it wilfully? How do we mourn a loss that may not be permanent? And how do we mark it without the customary acts that follow an established death? 

There are other questions, too. In fact, for the families of the missing, it’s the questions that consume them. Questions breed more questions. The irresolution engulfs them. “I didn’t sleep much the first six months,” Loren says. “It could drive you mad. But I’ve learnt to deal with it by being busy. By working to find Dan, by running my advocacy group. But it can be awkward. Society doesn’t know how to respond. I went back to my work office after a few weeks and no one said anything. They didn’t know how.”

For help or to provide information, contact: Lifeline, 13 11 14; missingpersons.gov.au; Crime Stoppers, 1800 333 000; dancomehome.com.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Land of the lost and the missing". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.