Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN), established in 2013, is the first organisation in Australia dedicated to the twin aims of raising awareness of missing persons and providing practical support to the families, friends and loved ones left behind.
For founder Loren O’Keeffe, the decision to launch MPAN was intensely personal.
Her brother, Daniel, has been missing for four and half long years. She has lived with loss and uncertainty every day since.
“It still happens that I’ll be walking down the street and see something in a shop window that I think he’d like, but then I remember that I don’t have a little brother at the moment,” Loren says in a voice that cannot mask the deep sorrow brought about by Daniel’s disappearance.
“He was like my side kick. Growing up there was always our two older sisters and then me and Dan. I miss looking after him—I was always really protective. Mum and Dad still talk about how they miss parenting a son.”
Loren’s family home in Geelong is the same one that Daniel went missing from in July 2011.
“It’s a hard place to try and have a happy occasion,” she says.
“Dan’s birthday is the worst by far, but every family gathering is hard. At Christmas we sit around the table and do all the surface level stuff, but everyone is looking and waiting to see if Dan’s going to walk through the door, because of all days, it’s a special day.”
“This year Mum’s clearing out Dan’s room to make way for family members who are coming down from Sydney for Christmas and that’s been really hard, because I think to myself, ‘What if Dan wants those t-shirts and she takes them to the Salvos?’”
Amidst the grief and confusion that followed Daniel’s disappearance, the O’Keeffe family learned there were few places they could turn for help, and that the topic was too confronting for many people to deal with.
“There’s such a stigma associated with missing persons,” Loren says. “As soon as people hear the term they think of crime and drugs and shady backgrounds, but people need to know this does happen to middle class families—it’s not something that only happens on TV or in the movies.
Loren attributes the lack of awareness to “stereotypes and taboos” resulting from “missing persons being associated with Crimestoppers for decades.”
“For way too long society has thought of this topic as a police issue,” Loren says. “But that’s just not right—it’s a community issue. Everyone can help, every single member of our community can help in some way.
“We have to change the perception of who a missing person is and what it means to be missing and how the issue affects the people who love them.”
Determined to do anything she could to find her “kind and gentle” brother, Loren quit her job and launched (and continues to maintain) one of the world’s biggest missing person social media campaigns, Dan Come Home.
“When your loved one disappears, you stop the world,” she explains. “For the first four months, I wasn’t sleeping, I was making thousands of phone calls, following up every single lead.
“I was losing my mind until Mum told me that she couldn’t afford to lose another child.”
The reach of social media has not only raised awareness of the search for Dan, but also forged connections which have helped reduce the loneliness and isolation that many families and friends of missing persons experience.
“The last Dan Come Home poster we did in June this year was seen by over 5 million people in the first week,” Loren says. “This is what’s giving my Mum reason to get out of bed every morning—she knows she’s not alone in the search.”
Giving hope and help
When word about the Dan Come Home campaign spread, Loren received requests for help from people who were looking for loved ones of their own.
“I had so many families contacting me for advice about what they could do to find their own loved ones so I put some dot points in a Word document and started emailing that out,” she says.
As demand for the document increased, Loren realised a dedicated website that was “clear and basic and simple” was necessary. “This is the reason why Missing Persons Advocacy Network came into existence,” she says simply.
“Someone goes missing in Australia 100 times a day—that’s one person every 14 minutes. I knew we had to create a platform for that conversation because it’s a huge ordeal for families to go through.”
“On a personal level, MPAN is the reason I’m coping too,” Loren says.
“I wouldn’t be able to deal with this if I wasn’t doing the work I’m doing which is ultimately about giving hope. We’re giving families support so they can maintain hope in a situation that seems utterly hopeless and these are people who’ve never had an advocate before.”
“The wider community needs to understand that it doesn’t take a lot of time or energy to help—doing something practical like printing a poster or sharing a post helps alleviate that sense of helplessness and hopelessness.”
To date, MPAN’s Missing Persons Guide, which provides practical advice in the search for a missing person, has been accessed by more than 10,000 people across the globe.
The search for support
Achieving financial sustainability for an organisation devoted to raising awareness about a topic that makes people uncomfortable, Loren admits, is MPAN’s most pressing challenge.
“My focus at the moment is getting to a point of financial sustainability and I’ve known that from day one,” she says.
“Like any charity, we desperately need donations in any form. Skilled volunteers with any sort of business background, whether that’s marketing, graphic design or other business skills, would also make such a difference to MPAN right now.”
Finding supportive partners who are prepared to look beyond the stereotype of missing persons posters that resemble most wanted posters hasn’t been easy, but this is another search Loren will never abandon.
“The urgency doesn’t fade,” she says. “There’s no relief, the longer it goes on the harder it gets, but you know, I feel like Dan’s allowed me to live my best life. I’m doing work that’s really important and super niche, so it’s as though I’ve been given the ultimate gift from my brother.”
“I can’t give up. I won’t give up. This can’t be in vain—Dan is way too important.”
Access MPAN’s Missing Persons Guide here.
National Missing Persons Week is held in Australia in late July or early August each year.