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Code Adam – What is it? How does it work?

What is Code Adam?

Code Adam is a strictly defined procedure for employees to follow when someone reports a lost or missing child. The program was originally created by Wal-Mart Stores in cooperation with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1994 and has since been implemented by many other stores and facilities throughout the United States.

What happens when an employee reports a Code Adam?

The specifics vary from store to store, but all Code Adam procedures include the following:

1. Employee will ask for a detailed description of the child, including name, age, gender, race, height, weight, hair and eye color, and a description of the child’s clothing and shoes.

The name is requested for identification purposes only and is never announced since it may provide a potential abductor with additional information to convince the child to accompany them.

2. The employee uses the nearest in-house phone or other storewide communication (walkie-talkies, PA, etc.) to page a Code Adam and broadcasts the child’s description (both physical appearance and apparel).

3. Designated employees monitor the entrances and exits while other employees drop everything to look for the missing child.

The locking of the doors that I experienced at Toys R Us was unusual; most Code Adam protocols do not include this step.

4. If the child is not located within 10 minutes the local police are called.

5. If the child is found accompanied by someone other than the parent or guardian SOME stores, Wal-Mart among them, allow employees to make reasonable efforts to delay their departure, provided it does not put the employee(s) or child at risk. Other stores simply ask their employees to note as much detail as they can about the adult, including a license plate if possible, but not to interfere. This is the more common of the two policies, for obvious safety reasons.

6. If the child is found simply lost (read this as alone) and unharmed they are reunited with the adult searching for them.

One thing that disturbed me is that NONE of the Code Adam protocol lists I found made any mention of verifying the identity of the adult who originated the Code. Most child abductions are family/acquaintance abductions rather than the stranger abductions we all fear.

7. The Code Adam is cancelled over the same storewide communication system used to initiate it, either because the child has been reunited with the searching adult or the police have arrived and taken over the situation.

Retailers who have a Code Adam program have chosen to do so and it is a purely voluntary process.

“The Code Adam Act of 2003” requires that all public federal buildings have a Code Adam protocol established in case of a missing child. The federal Code Adam program is administered jointly by the General Services Administration and the Department of Homeland Security Federal Protective Service and applies to facilities that are owned OR leased by the government. The federal policy is slightly different from that in the public sector in that it involves security and/or law enforcement personnel from the time the Code Adam is initiated.

Code Adam is named in honor of Adam Walsh, a six year old boy who went missing from a Sears store in Florida in 1981 and was later found dead. His father, John Walsh, is a huge child safety advocate and is best known for his work on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.”

Look for the Code Adam logo when shopping. It is usually the blue and white shown below, but I have also seen it in dark green and white or other color combinations that match the store’s brand colors. If you know of a store you frequent that doesn’t display the logo, ask them to consider starting a Code Adam program. Retailers can contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for more information on starting a Code Adam program in their own stores.

Code Adam logo on the front door of a Wal-Mart store.

Remember the most important thing to do if you think your child is lost or missing is TELL SOMEONE RIGHT AWAY. Do not attempt to search yourself, do not be afraid to admit to store employees that you may have lost your child—a little embarrassment is easier to bear than an abducted child. Every second you waste looking unassisted is another second a potential abductor has to get away.