(MintPress) – Imagine surfing the Web, looking for a restaurant to go to Friday night. You click on a website for a seemingly suitable choice, when suddenly you come across an “Error 404 Page Not Found” message. But that’s only half the surprise. Under the error message is a picture of a little boy with […]
(MintPress) – Imagine surfing the Web, looking for a restaurant to go to Friday night. You click on a website for a seemingly suitable choice, when suddenly you come across an “Error 404 Page Not Found” message. But that’s only half the surprise. Under the error message is a picture of a little boy with the words, “Page not found, neither is this person” under his picture.
Today, technology is commonly used when searching for missing children. By using social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, law enforcement and searchers can upload pictures and information instantly to alert others of a disappearance.
An initiative in Europe is taking advantage of technology in order to raise awareness for the thousands of children who go missing each year from countries across the continent.
“The choice of the shown missing persons message on the 404 page will be at random: it could be a recent disappearance, or on the contrary, a child that has been missing for a long time,” said Maryse Roland, spokeswoman for Child Focus.
Although NotFound.org is a collaboration between the European Center for Missing and Sexually Exploited Chidlren (also known as Child Focus), Missing Children Europe and the Belgian-based advertising agency Famous, the problem of missing children is not confined to Europe.
In the United States, 800,000 cases of missing children are reported each year, which adds up to 2,000 reports daily. That far exceeds the 140,000 cases in the United Kingdom each year or the four reports per day in Belgium.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), there are four identified categories in which cases are placed: endangered runaway; family abduction; lost, injured or otherwise missing; and nonfamily abduction.
Of the 800,000 reports each year in the U.S., more than one-fourth of the missing children are abducted by family members. Another 58,000 were reportedly abducted by nonfamily members.
NotFound.org plans to use the more than 644 million websites worldwide not only to find children who are reported missing, but to generate more discussion about the topic.
“This project will allow us to once again concentrate the attention on children whom we haven’t heard of for many years,” said Roland. “These children risk to fall into oblivion.”
The milk carton campaign and AMBER Alert
In the late-1970s and early-1980s, a string of high profile missing children events took place in the U.S. 1979 in New York, 6-year-old Etan Patz went missing on his way to school. The case gripped the nation as his father, who was a photographer, widely distributed photos of his son to media outlets as well as throughout the city in an attempt to find him.
At the same time, the country was reacting to events taking place in Atlanta, Ga. where, over a three-year period, the bodies of 29 children were recovered in lakes, marshes and ponds along roadside trails before a suspect was arrested in 1981 for the murders.
As high profile cases continued, the nation’s eyes were opened and criticism was brought to the weak legislation regarding missing and exploited children. Previously, there had been a lack of local, state and federal coordination when dealing with cases; no response system in place nationally; and no central place families could turn to when searching for their loved ones.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), “When it came to handling missing-children cases, the United States was a nation of 50 states often acting like 50 separate countries.”
Following these events in the early-80s, the National Child Safety Council (NCSC) launched a nationwide milk carton program to help advance the mission of finding children who had disappeared by placing their photographs on the sides of cartons in order to raise awareness. Within weeks of the national launch, more than 700 independent dairy farms throughout the U.S. took part in the program with the cooperation of milk carton manufacturers.
Barb Huggett, the director of research and development for NCSC, was one of the people behind the scenes when the milk carton campaign began. “When you are working in an office all day, you don’t really realize how many people knew about the program,” Huggett told MintPress.
Reaching a countless number of Americans, this campaign even brought attention to the persistent problem of child abductions. In fact, in its first year, the milk carton campaign was given credit in helping recover children at a rate of 62 percent.
With the realization of just how influential the milk carton program was, other initiatives were put into place to continue to raise awareness about missing children. Other NCSC missions included putting photographs on grocery bags and in telephone directories.
In 1996, when a 9-year-old girl, Amber Hagerman, went missing in Arlington, Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed with local law enforcement to help search for the girl. While she was found murdered at the bottom of a creek bed in Arlington in January of that year, the coordination of media and police sparked the beginning of the AMBER alert system.
Stemming from this incident, cities throughout the country began implementing similar AMBER alert systems. In 2003, then President George W. Bush signed legislation making the alert system a national program.
On Wed. Oct. 31, Google announced it partnered with NCMEC to include AMBER Alerts in the Search and Maps sections of its platforms.
“By increasing the availability of these alerts through our services, we hope that more people will assist in the search for children featured in AMBER Alerts and that the rates of safe recovery will rise,” Phil Coakley, a software engineer with Google, wrote on the company’s blog.
AMBER alerts, the ability to connect to a broad audience through the use of social media and coordination among law enforcement and activist groups have increased the rate of recovery tremendously, which today stands at 92 percent.
Now and the future
Using technology as an aid when searching for missing children is now the new norm. Instead of milk cartons, technology such as television, social media and phone services are now widely used by law enforcement and searchers.
Photos and information can easily be dispersed by the touch of a button so users on social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, can alert others of a disappearance quickly. This can then create a domino effect, with a large number of people aware of what, where and who to look for in the case of a disappearance.
Francis Herbert, Secretary-General of Missing Children Europe, said, “We are always looking for new communication channels to distribute missing children messages and increase the chances to bring them home. ”
Others agree that one of the hardest part about finding a missing child is making others aware of the disappearance.
According to Morgan Wright, CEO and chief crime fighter at Crowd Sourced Investigations — a website connecting law enforcement with social media — making others aware of missing children needs to be more aggressive. “The most important thing it [an alert] has to do is create awareness. If I don’t see the information, I can’t act on it,” Wright said in a recent interview.
With many agreeing, some cities in the U.S. are passing initiatives to aid in the awareness of the issue. In 2011, it was announced that cellphone users in New York and Washington would begin receiving alerts via text message if there was a regional emergency, including threats to public safety and AMBER Alerts.
The program, Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), takes one step toward alerting large groups of people about emergencies in their area in order to expedite mobilization.
While using technology in these ways greatly impacts the successful recovery of missing children, advocates and law enforcement officials agree that teaching children what to do if someone tries to abduct them is the best case scenario.
Additionally, parents are encouraged to keep a folder with updated information of their children in the event that a child does go missing. By having easy access to a picture and basic information — height, weight, age, any distinguishing marks — makes the search more efficient, leading to a greater chance of successful recovery of the child.
As time goes on, the Internet and other initiatives continue to advance the search for missing children.
Huggett summarizes, “The world of missing kids has changed a lot over the years.”
And with these ever-evolving changes, it is possible to create even more awareness in hopes of bringing every missing child home.