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Helping First Responders & the Public Bring Home Missing Kids

Over the years, society has faced increasing threats that have become more diverse and severe, making them more easily accessible to those with malicious intent. From insider threats to transnational cyber criminals and nation-states, these dangers pose a significant risk to critical infrastructure and public safety, creating a charged and complex threat landscape. To meet these challenges, the Department of Homeland Security works tirelessly with federal, state, and local agencies to protect U.S. interests despite formidable obstacles. The urgency and complexity of this task have never been greater, and the stakes are high.

The wide range of dangers and endless supply of bad actors seeking to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of an open society demand a well-equipped and trained cadre of public safety and first responder professionals. The role played by first responders is paramount to a resilient homeland security enterprise. Chief Richard Carrizzo, vice chair of the First Responder Network Authority Board, reported, “First responders across the country put their lives on the line to keep Americans safe. An estimated 4.6 million people serve as career and volunteer firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics in the United States.”

An often-overlooked existential danger threatening America is the exploitation of its most important resource, its children. Combatting child exploitation in all its forms is a strategic priority of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice as well as a mission focus for countless law enforcement agencies across all government sectors.

Homeland security begins with hometown security. Security is everyone’s responsibility. A resilient public is a vital component of a strong homeland defense. Public safety officers and first responders are often the first line of defense and play a major role in helping communities respond to various emergencies. For these reasons, this group of professionals is in a key position to assist in finding missing and exploited children. The sheer numbers associated with the first responder disciplines, including law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, and emergency management officials, can serve as force multipliers at the first but necessary step of identifying a potentially vulnerable child.

Daunting Challenge

It is an unfortunate reality that missing and exploited children continue to be a massive global challenge. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), in 2021, their CyberTipline received 29.4 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation, up from 21.7 million in 2020. One form of exploitation reported to the CyberTipline is child sex trafficking. Of the more than 25,000 cases of children reported missing to NCMEC in 2021 who had run away from home, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking. Today, the average age of child sex trafficking victims reported missing to NCMEC is only 15 years old.

In its 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment, DHS noted that addressing the issue of human trafficking is a priority in its roadmap. “Human trafficking – both sex trafficking and forced labor – remains a significant issue,” the report states.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports 337,195 NCIC entries for missing children in 2021, an increase from the 365,348 reported in 2020. In 2021, NCMEC assisted law enforcement, families, and child welfare agencies with 27,733 missing children cases. These numbers are staggering and underscore the necessity of never forgetting that each number represents a child in distress.

Crimes involving exploited children are also rampant online. Recently, attempts at child exploitation have increased due to the shifting of criminals’ tactics, which evolve with technology.

Child exploitation in all its forms has no borders. The low cost and ease of internet access and increased reliance on electronic devices have facilitated transnational crime and increased risks to children. NCMEC reports that child sexual abuse material is often produced in one country and immediately downloaded in foreign locations, creating a global problem. In 2021, 93.5% of NCMEC reports resolved to locations outside the United States.

Child exploitation has been a longstanding problem, and predators continually find new and innovative ways to carry out their criminal activities. Unfortunately, these individuals often exploit the technology and communication systems designed to promote good governance and support the well-being of civil societies to commit heinous crimes against children. Children being at an amplified risk is an unintended consequence of the digital age.

Reason for Hope

The problem of child exploitation can seem daunting for a good reason – it is. However, many law enforcement and public safety professionals work tirelessly every day to identify and apprehend child predators, rescue children, and restore hope to shattered lives. Agencies such as the United States Marshalls Service, United States Postal Inspections Services, Homeland Security Investigations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Secret Service to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Division, along with their state and local law enforcement partners are making a difference every day. These and many other public safety organizations work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program and are at the front line regarding this type of criminal and deviant behavior.

The successful rescue of children through law enforcement operations is a testament to the determination and collaborative efforts required to identify, disrupt, and dismantle child exploitation rings, no matter where they are located. The recovery of even a single child offers hope and highlights the importance of public-private partnerships in the fight against child exploitation.

Private Sector Capability

The use of technology to prevent and deter criminal activity and enhance public safety is widely recognized and presents opportunities for collaboration between various sectors. Many private companies and nonprofit organizations are working diligently to address issues of child safety and human trafficking. Private sector tools and resources can be particularly impactful in this humanitarian effort, and a comprehensive, community-wide approach is necessary to address these issues effectively. Government and law enforcement agencies welcome and rely on the support of these organizations to achieve their objectives.

In one such example, LexisNexis Risk Solutions developed and donated the ADAM Program in November 2000 to respond to a critical NCMEC need for rapid photo distribution when children go missing. “ADAM” stands for Automated Delivery of Alerts on Missing Children and is named to honor 7-year-old murder victim Adam Walsh.

The ADAM Program employs geo-targeted mapping technology to distribute missing child posters to various community stakeholders within a specific geographic region. These posters are sent to police departments, news media outlets, schools, businesses, medical centers, and retail establishments. The search area can include a state, zip code, or a combination of a city and zip code, as well as a highway corridor. This program is open to the public for individuals, law enforcement, and businesses (U.S. only) to sign up at no cost to receive missing child alerts in their area via adamprogram.com.

While AMBER Alerts are issued for the most serious child abduction cases that meet certain criteria, NCMEC can use the ADAM Program to distribute alerts for any missing child case, including those involving children who run away. Endangered runaways comprise the largest group of missing children and are often at high risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. More awareness raised about this program can significantly help in the recovery efforts of missing children.

NCMEC used the ADAM Program to distribute over 1.5 million alerts on over 1,880 missing children cases in 2022. In partnership with NCMEC, the ADAM Program has helped rescue nearly 200 missing children and assisted in the recovery of countless others. The ADAM Program acts as a force multiplier, augmenting the efforts of law enforcement and the public to keep a vigilant eye on missing children. It is one of many tools used to maximize visibility and increase the chances of a successful recovery. In cases of missing children, time is of the essence. The more people who sign up to receive missing alerts, the better positioned NCMEC is to recover a missing child safely. 

“The ADAM Program plays a vital role in getting the photos of missing children to the right people quickly, including first responders. Recently, three children were safely recovered by a firefighter who responded to a call and later recognized the children on the ADAM poster. This situation has played out time and time again where our nation’s most vulnerable population have been located safely thanks to first responders and their awareness of issues surrounding missing children.”

–Patti Willingham, Executive Director, Missing Children Division, NCMEC, via personal correspondence with the author, April 12, 2023 

This partnership harnesses the power of technology to benefit society by fostering collaboration and enabling targeted action to recover missing children and support law enforcement efforts to apprehend those who seek to harm them. By leveraging these resources, NCMEC aims to positively impact and protect children from harm.

In one such case, a call came into the NCMEC Call Center from someone who received an ADAM poster, which led to the recovery of five young children. They were found in the woods after pinpointing a small town where the children and abductor were seen getting supplies.

The Whole of Community Approach

The most crucial action is to be vigilant for missing children and to report any suspicions of abuse or human trafficking to the authorities. Anyone who has information about a missing child or suspects a child is being subjected to abuse or trafficking should contact the local police department immediately. Other actions include:

  • Report information about missing children or child sexual exploitation to NCMEC’s 24-hour call center at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) or about exploitation through the CyberTipline website.
  • Help minors report and remove sexually explicit content from the internet (e.g., through Report Remove).
  • Increase community awareness surrounding child abuse and exploitation with the Blue Campaign, a training and education outreach program developed through a public-private partnership.
  • Know what to do if a child is missing.
  • Have children and families rethink “stranger danger” with the KidSmartz Program.
  • Participate in online safety education programs like NetSmartz.
  • Encourage children to learn with interactive activities like those at NetSmartzKids.
  • Look up websites that help find missing children.
  • Learn more about this topic through published research.
  • NCMEC’s 2022 Impact.

To effectively combat child exploitation, it is essential to maintain and enhance information-sharing platforms that connect public and private institutions, law enforcement agencies, community organizations, and educational institutions. The ADAM Program, a collaboration between LexisNexis Risk Solutions, law enforcement agencies, NCMEC, and the public, represents a collective approach to this issue. The most rewarding aspect of this program is that it has helped to recover so many missing children. Continuing to work together can make a real difference in the fight to protect children from harm.

Michael Breslin

Michael Breslin serves as the Director, Strategic Client Relationships, Federal Law Enforcement for LexisNexis. In this role, he supports the LexisNexis Federal Government team by managing and establishing executive relationships across the federal government. He is a retired federal law enforcement senior executive with 24 years of law enforcement and homeland security experience. He served as the deputy assistant director in the Office of Investigations, focusing on the integrated mission of investigations and protection with oversight of 162 domestic and foreign field offices. He served as the event coordinator for the National Special Security Event Papal visit to Philadelphia in September 2015 and was appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security as the federal coordinator for the Papal Visit to the Mexico-U.S. Border in 2016. He is a Senior Executive Service member and published author of numerous articles on homeland security, defense, and threat mitigation methods. He serves on the Cyber Investigations Advisory Board of the U.S. Secret Service and is a Board Member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He also serves on the Preparedness Leadership Council. He has a B.A. from Saint John’s University, Queens, NY; an M.S. in National Security Strategy and a Graduate Certificate in Business Transformation and Decision Making from The Industrial College of the Armed Forces; and an MPA from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He also serves on the Domestic Preparedness Advisory Board.

Trish McCall

Trish McCall, Senior Director of Program Management, LexisNexis Risk Solutions, is the co-founder of the ADAM Program, a tool donated to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children by LexisNexis Risk Solutions to assist with the distribution of missing child posters. Trish also leads initiatives working with corporate and academia to help grow the HPCC Systems® open-source community, with an emphasis on creating an ecosystem of advocates for expanding the value of the HPCC Systems platform. Trish holds a BS in Computer Science Information Systems from Kennesaw State University and serves on their Industry Advisory Board.

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