Do a quick, cursory search. Your child probably isn’t far. Stay still for a moment and think about what might have captured her attention (the iPad display? the game with the giant stuffed bears?), and quickly check that area. (If you’re near a swimming pool, a fountain, or any other body of water, always check there first.) While you may have heard that it’s unwise to call your child’s name – that a nearby predator could use it to his advantage – most experts say it’s okay, and attracting attention can actually be a deterrent to predators. “Your child is probably within earshot, so it makes sense to call out her name, especially since the chances of abduction are very, very slim,” says Robin Sax, a former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted crimes against children.
Get help fast. If you don’t find your child after a minute or two, seek the closest employee and explain the situation. Do it quickly even if it means you have to leave the immediate area, or send someone else if you can. Just about every large retailer has a missing-child action plan (often called a Code Adam program) that instantly mobilizes employees to guard exit doors and start combing bathrooms, fitting rooms, and aisles, says Rich Mellor, consultant/advisor for loss prevention at National Retail Federation. “During a Code Adam, no child leaves the building without someone from the store questioning the adult and the child,” Mellor says.
Call the police. If you haven’t found your child after five to ten minutes, get the police involved, safety experts say. A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the first three hours are the most critical to locate a missing child. “Give them a good description of where you last saw your child and in what kind of clothes. Stay calm and remember that calling the police does not mean the worst has happened,” says psychologist Rebecca Bailey, Ph.D., coauthor of Safe Kids, Smart Parents. “Most parents vacillate from being overly concerned to thinking it will never happen to them.” However, don’t wait if your instincts tell you to call. “If you truly think your child was abducted, time is of the essence,” says Sax, noting that most abductions are committed by someone the child knows." It doesn’t matter whether or not you are in a contentious divorce with custody issues. If your gut says call, then call. Don’t talk yourself out of calling the police." Also consider soliciting a family member for support and help, especially if you have another child with you. It’s scary to think about your child getting lost, but knowing what to do – staying calm and seeking help fast – can spare you panic you’re unlikely to ever forget.