– A child disappears. Police are called. Nothing happens.

Child rights activists say the rape last week of a 5-year-old girl is just the latest case in which Indian police failed to take urgent action on a report of a missing child. Three days after the attack, the girl was found alone locked in a room in the New Delhi building where her family lives.

More than 90,000 children go missing in India each year; more than 34,000 are never found. Some parents say they lost crucial time because police wrongly dismissed their children as runaways, refused to file reports or treated the cases as nuisances.

The parents of the 5-year-old said that after their daughter disappeared, they repeatedly begged police to register a complaint and begin a search, but they were rejected.

Three days later, neighbors heard a child crying from a locked room in the tenement. They broke down the door and rushed the brutalized girl to the police station.

‘They just wanted us to go away’

The parents said the police response was to offer the couple 2,000 rupees ($37) to keep quiet about.

“They just wanted us to go away. They didn’t want to register a case even after they saw how badly our daughter was injured,” said the girl’s father, who cannot be identified because Indian law requires a rape victim’s identity be kept secret.

Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar admitted Monday local officers had erred.

“There have been shortfalls, so the station house officer and his deputy have been suspended,” Kumar told reporters.

In 2010, police took 15 days to register a missing-persons case for 14-year-old Pankaj Singh. His mother is still waiting for him to come home.

“Every day my husband and my father would go wait at the police station, but they would shoo them away,” Pravesh Kumari Singh said. “The neighbors said some boys had called him out. We searched everywhere, went to the police, but they refused to believe that something had happened to our son.”

Formal police complaints were registered in only one-sixth of missing child cases in 2011, said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer with Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or the Save the Childhood Movement. He said police resist registering cases because they want to keep crime figures low, and that parents are often too poor to bribe them to reconsider.

A tangle of state and national interests

Ribhu said the first few hours after a child goes missing are the most crucial. “The police can cordon off nearby areas, issue alerts at railway and bus stations, and step up vigilance to catch the kidnappers,” he said.

Activists say delays let traffickers move children to neighboring states, where the police don’t have jurisdiction. There is no national database of missing children that state police can reference.

Police have insisted that most of missing children are runways fleeing grinding poverty. Many cases involved poor migrant construction workers who move from site to site around an unfamiliar city.

The National Crime Records Bureau reported that 34,406 missing children were never found in 2011, up from 18,166 in 2009. In 2006, the Central Bureau of Investigation said at least 815 criminal gangs were kidnapping children for begging, prostitution or ransom. Not one has been cracked, says Save the Childhood.

“The government is just not ready to confront the issue of trafficking or missing children. And this gets reflected in the apathy of the police in dealing with cases of missing children,” said Ribhu, the lawyer.