FBI partners with National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to reunite families

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Thousands of children disappear every year. One such story recently caught the attention of people across northeast Ohio, when 3-year-old Emilliano Terry disappeared in Cleveland on Nov. 25.

Cleveland police called the Cleveland FBI for assistance. The FBI handles kidnappings, but no Amber Alert was issued in this case, as some of the initial details were sketchy. While CPD was the primary investigating agency, the bureau also reached out for help.

The following day, a team from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children arrived in Cleveland. A few hours after their arrival, an alert Cleveland FBI agent formed a hunch that led to the discovery of little Emilliano.

Sadly, the toddler had been dead for days. It would seem the initial story told by his mother to investigators the day before was not entirely truthful after all.

It’s the worst outcome imaginable, but it’s also a reality that some families face daily. About 2,000 children are reported missing every day in the U.S. It's a terrifying fear that strikes at the heart of any parent. Who do you turn to when this happens?

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children specializes in finding missing children and it has a pretty decent success rate. And the FBI is more than happy to get help from them.

NCMEC’s Alexandria, Va. office is located a few Metro stops away from the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in downtown Washington, D.C. I was fortunate enough to be a guest of both as a member of the FBI Citizens’ Academy of Cleveland.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, founded in 1984, does just what it sounds like. It's a non-profit organization that exists only as a resource for law enforcement agencies, as well as exploited children or their families.

In fact, you’re probably familiar with its most famous founder, John Walsh, whose son Adam was abducted in 1981 and murdered.

In 1990, NCMEC’s recovery rate for missing children was just over 60 percent. Today, its recovery rate is 97 percent.

That number is impressive. But what I found even more impressive about NCMEC was how efficient the organization is. In its time, it has formed several different departments and databases to specifically handle the different needs involved in missing and exploited children.

Most of the cases NCMEC investigates fall into three categories: family abductions, forensics or runaways. Most often when a child disappears, it's a family abduction. Maybe a marriage turned sour and one spouse took their child and left without even leaving a note. These cases happen and sometimes the search can last decades.

NCMEC’s main division is its Missing Children Division. Its goal is to find missing children and prevent their victimization. It has a call center that operates around the clock. And no matter what language the caller speaks, the hotline is literally staffed with someone who can speak it, too.

The Forensic Services Division focuses on children who have been missing for a long time or cases where the victim is unidentified. Science plays a large part in this division.

If you’ve ever seen an age progression photograph, showing what a child who disappeared in 2000 would look like now, chances are a NCMEC analyst helped make it.

But how do they do it?

Forensic experts typically start with the last known photograph of the child, then they look at pictures of the parents at the same age, as well as pictures of siblings. Using those features very often helps create a startlingly accurate age rendition.

In those cases, there is still a chance the missing child is alive. But there are cases where the remains of dead children are found and the only hope is to identify them. Sometimes all investigators have to work with is a skeleton.

But NCMEC has experts who handle those cases, too. Their job is to work with the skull and study its bone structure in an attempt to reconstruct what the victim looked like. This may sound like a stretch, but both pictures of reconstructed faces and age-progression composites have solved many cases, leading to closure or reunions for estranged families.

In some instances, children who never realized they grew up a missing child, spotted their own composite photos and called NCMEC, eventually leading to a reunion with their rightful family.

It is also a grim truth that some missing and exploited children fall prey to sex trafficking. Some of them are runaways. NCMEC has a division for these cases that has built up extensive suspect and victim bios in recent years, and those databases helps serve to locate victims. NCMEC also helps U.S. Marshals track non-complaint sex offenders.

But NCMEC’s job is not over once a child is recovered and reunited with his or her family.

There have been cases where a boy was abducted at a very young age, grew up to believe his abductors were his real family, only to be recovered a decade later as a teenager. In other instances, sex trafficking victims who have lived on the streets for so long, have grown a distrust of law enforcement and need a more patient approach to open up.

That’s where the Family Reunification Unit comes in. This division specializes in helping families reunite, address their trauma, and learn how to speak to each other without letting guilt or unrealistic expectations sabotage the reunion.

But all of this is simply a crash course into the systems that NCMEC developed over the years. Each one has been fine-tuned to help do the work that many local law enforcement agencies may not have the time, resources or manpower to do on their own.

NCMEC is not a law enforcement agency. Instead, its primary goal is to provide a service to law enforcement agencies.

The problem is, not every law enforcement agency is even aware that NCMEC exists. When a child disappears, NCMEC and all its resources are available at no cost or glory to help locate that child.

Simply enough, NCMEC is there for you.

The FBI has a strong working relationship with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and it hopes to spread the word about the good work the organization does so more law enforcement agencies can utilize its resources to help bring families back together.

Like many law enforcement agencies, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children thrives on people doing what they feel is right. If you have a tip, spot a child you recognize from a missing poster, or even if you suspect you may have been abducted as a child, you can call NCMEC’s 24-hour free hotline 1-800-THE-LOST.

More information can be found at: www.missingkids.com.

[ Look for further updates from Colin McDermott’s experience with the FBI Citizens’ Academy in the coming days]

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