The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is celebrating its 25th anniversary June 13. Staff writer Cheryl Wetzstein spoke with Ernie Allen, a co-founder of the center and its president and chief executive.
Question: Is the United States' culture getting safer or more dangerous for kids?
Answer: I think the changes in the 25-year period have been dramatic. For example, more missing children come home safely today than ever before in the nation's history. But at the same time, I think it's a very dangerous time for kids. We're seeing different kinds of risks than we saw 25 years ago.
Q: What was one of the first big changes?
A: The Adam Walsh case in 1981 was the primary catalyst that led to the recognition that this was a nation of 50 states that acted like 50 separate countries, and 18,000 police departments that basically didn't talk to each other.
One of the things the Walsh family discovered was that it was virtually impossible to have missing-child information entered into the FBI's national crime computer. You could enter information about stolen cars, stolen guns, all kinds of stolen property, but not stolen children.
And so one of the first steps that all of us took was to try to persuade Congress in 1982 to pass what was called the Missing Children's Act, which made it possible to enter missing-child information into the National Crime Information Center.
Q: What were other important changes?
A: If you think back, virtually every police department in America had a mandatory waiting period - if your child disappeared, the presumption was that he probably ran away - if he doesn't show up within 24, 48, 72 hours, call us back, and we'll take a report, and we'll investigate.
Well, we now know that in the most serious cases - abduction-homicides - in three-fourths of those cases, the child is dead within the first three hours. So, it was another seemingly minor kind of development, but by 1990, Congress had passed a law called the National Child Search Assistance Act that outlawed the use of waiting periods.
Q: How did the idea of a NCMEC get started?
A: Probably the best example ... was the Walsh case, which was probably the most high-profile, media-intense child-abduction case since the Lindbergh kidnapping.
The Walsh family had to create their own posters; they were on all media, all the time, all the networks, the front pages in all the newspapers. And roughly a week into the investigation, they mobilized their friends and family to contact every police department in their home state of Florida just to make sure that if some police officer in Orlando made a traffic stop, and there was a little boy in the back seat who looked like Adam, the police would at least detain the driver and ask some questions. What they discovered was that, at the peak of what was clearly the most media-intense child-abduction investigation in American history, 80 percent of these police departments had no idea who Adam was, no idea that the little boy was missing.
So, John Walsh and I and others had this notion that there should be a kind of national clearinghouse, a coordinated, national response to this problem.
Q: Technology is now helping to solve even very old cases?
A: Yes. We just honored an investigator [District Attorney Wayne Cox] in Humboldt County, California. Working with him, we were able to resolve a case of a little boy [Curtis Huntzinger, 14] who was killed 18 years ago and whose body was disposed of in a forest area, but whose mom had never forgotten.
What we were able to do was to revisit the case, look at the files, reassemble the files, conduct some new interviews, and follow up on the prime suspect, who after 18 years, confessed. And in order to find the body of the little boy, [Mr. Cox] and some volunteers had to persuade authorities to clear a part of a forest that had grown up over the 18 years. In using various kinds of in-ground detectors, we were able to locate the child's remains. So this family was able to bury their child, and this offender, who had been walking free for 18 years, is now being prosecuted and is going to be brought to justice. Those kinds of tools and techniques didn't exist 25 years ago.
Q: What are some issues that trouble you today?
A: One of the things we've seen with the advent of the Internet is the explosion of a problem we thought was under control, and that is child pornography. We have discovered that there are far more people who are attracted to, and consumers of, that kind of content than we ever thought possible. And we are discovering that many of those people don't just look at the pictures ... they offend against real children.
We have a child-identification program and a team of analysts who review 200,000 images and videos of child pornography a week. This staff of analysts have now reviewed about 24 million child-pornography images, trying to place these children somewhere on Planet Earth, so we can work with local law-enforcement agencies... to try to identify the child, give the child help. And by identifying the child, it usually leads you to the perpetrator.
This is a really a daunting task ... we are looking at different kinds of challenges than we were looking at 25 years ago.
Q: Switching to the issue of abductions by a family member, do you see anything different?
A: It's a very difficult problem, because in family abductions, the abductor usually has help ... . But the good news over 25 years, I think, is that law enforcement and the courts take the problem far more seriously than ever before. Twenty-five years ago, it wasn't even a crime to abduct your own child; today it is, and one of the things we grapple with is international family abductions ... .
We still encounter the attitude, 'Well, the kid's with a parent, how bad can it be?' Well, it can be pretty bad. And what we have learned over 25 years is that in 80 percent of these cases, the motive for the abduction of a child is not love of a child, it's anger or revenge directed at the other spouse. So what we've tried to do is change the way law enforcement and the courts look at these problems and to view them primarily from the viewpoint of what's in the best interest of the child ... .
Q: And your missing-child recovery rate is ...
A: Ninety-seven percent this year. So I think it's dramatic, and I think it speaks volumes ... that there is a system in this country to address these problems.