A missing person found

The inspiring family members of missing people in a journey mapping session

The Australian Federal Police estimate about 35,000 people are reported missing each year. According to their estimates 99.5% are “located”. Of course being located isn’t the same as being reunited with those that care about you, or even being alive. And the remaining 0.5% (1,750 people) go missing forever, never to be hugged again by family and friends.

The Australian national road toll (1,207 in 2015) is lower than those who don’t come home, and we often hear of the impacts of road deaths, but not so much the missing souls. Souls like Dan O’Keeffe.

Dan went missing in 2011 under somewhat unusual circumstances, that many would characterise as suspicious enough to warrant a police investigation. Victoria Police didn’t feel the same and committed bare resources to find him, and Dan’s family were forced to do mount their own search.

But where to begin?

They started by searching the neighbourhood and asking people if they’d seen Dan, they ran a flyer drop, they visited hospitals and truck stops. Hours turned to days, days to weeks, and months, and years. Dan’s family were left not knowing if Dan was alive or dead, and hung onto too many false hopes, and endured that painful mystery while having to hold down jobs and care for themselves and each other. The guilt of those times they were not looking for Dan was crushing. Dan’s sister Loren (second from left above) quit her job and dedicated herself to finding Dan.

Over 18 months Loren ended up running an inspiring social media campaign named Dan Come Home. It gained a lot of attention but in the end led to scant leads, false hopes, a lot of administration, and even hateful comments from the public.

What Dan’s family found out through that experience is there is no playbook for how to find someone who has gone missing. No support for those struggling with the pain, fear, anxiety, exhaustion of the experience, and no practical guidance or funding to help them.

So, in 2013 Loren founded the Missing Person’s Advocacy Network, an organisation created to support the families and friends of those who are missing.

This is where I joined the narrative. The studio I was working for at the time was tasked with giving those families some tools to aid their search, particularly in those critical first hours and days.

We ran a session with family members who had searched for loved ones (without success) that left a lasting impression on me. I was struck by the strength, determination, and resourcefulness of these five people. That session bonded me to their cause as well as invoked a deep sympathy for their pain and struggle.

The main discovery from that session was that there was simply a lack of information on what to do. Imagine having to find information from a wholly unaffected Police officer, or scouring the internet for scant resources — all that while in a fearful state.

The tool we built was simple. We found the internet was one of the first places people would go, after the Police Station. So we made an easily findable website with brief and clear instructions on what to do and some basic helpful features. The Missing Person’s Guide would help reunite people across Australia, and the information has been translated into other languages to help people across the planet.

While not my greatest moment of visual design this is one of the projects I’m most proud of in my digital career. I felt the power of purpose and the satisfaction of helping others.

Loren was an inspiration to us all through her strength, commitment and determination, and we yearned to do more to help her. I left Thick later that year and sadly lost touch with Loren and her cause as I focused on my own challenges.

This week a sad new chapter of Dan’s story unfolded as his remains were found under the family home.

There is still some uncertainty around the death as reported in the media. How was Dan’s body not found in the initial search of the house, or subsequently? How did he end up down there? What caused his death?

Dan’s family have a closure of sorts in that Dan is no longer presumed alive, but at this point there is still mystery around his death and I can only imagine what the family are going through. I hope for their sake that the mystery is solved swiftly and with a reasonable outcome.

The story of Dan O’Keeffe demonstrates the impact of a missing person on his family, friends, and the community. We must do more to help those who go missing and their families.

Please help MPAN support those who are looking for a missing person by donating now via their website (PayPal accepted).