Portraits of hope. Scott Barrows draws missing children with age progression process

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SCOTT BARROWS sits at his drawing board. Slowly, the face of a Texas teen takes shape on his paper: Eyes. Nose. Mouth. Chin.

The artist is precise, measuring and remeasuring with his metric ruler. Each feature must be exact. And that's not easy, because there's no model posing for this portrait.

The would-be model is a missing person.

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That Texas teen hasn't been seen since 1984 when he disappeared near his parents' Colorado vacation home - a ``stranger abduction'' statistic in FBI files. He was 14 back then.

Now it's Mr. Barrows's job to ferret out what the youth might look like four years later. All the artist has to go on is an old photo. And everybody knows, kids change. But Barrows is better than pretty good at this new technique of age progression.

Three years ago, Barrows and his colleague, Lewis Sadler, devised a way to add age to the photographed faces of children and adolescents, handing hope to parents whose youngsters have been missing a long time.

The Barrows/Sadler system is based on plastic surgeons' measurements, dental data, anthropological information, and their own extrapolations. They boiled this bundle of complexities down to a 45-page text that charts the average growth rates of 60 facial features for young people - thousands of statistics in all. That's what Barrows works from.

So far, he's done 65 drawings. Of the 40 already circulated as handbills, posters, and on TV spots, 16 youngsters have been found alive. And Barrows's portraits played the major role in six of the recoveries.

Take the case of the two-year-old Mexican-American child who disappeared from the Chicago area. Seven years passed, and optimism stood at zero.

Then the mother, a resident of Addison, Ill., received word that her daughter might be in nearby Elgin. Tips and anonymous phone calls are all part of the scenario when children are missing. Sadly, false leads abound.

``We really had no idea if she was out there - a slim possibility,'' says Timothy Hayden of the Addison police. The first challenge, though, belonged to Barrows: Transform the small and grainy snapshot of a two year old into a girl of nine. That, he managed.

Armed with the picture, Officer Hayden dogged the Elgin district, school to school, principal to principal, teacher to teacher for more than a month.

Nothing. No one looking the least like Barrows's drawing was enrolled in Elgin schools.

Then a break - a little girl peeked at the picture while her teacher talked with Hayden. ``That's Maria,'' she announced matter-of-factly, telling that Maria (name changed by request) sometimes stayed in Elgin on weekends. From that clue, Hayden tracked the missing Maria to a Chicago school.

``Without Scott [Barrows], we wouldn't have found that girl. The age progression - that's the only thing she was identified from,'' explains Hayden.

It's not uncommon for children to be abducted by the parent who lost custody. ``But that doesn't mean they're safe,'' says Barrows, citing various cases where parent abductors have been linked to drugs, crime, or child abuse.

A medical illustrator by profession, Barrows's artistry brought together an even more complex jigsaw that had pieces strewn throughout the Southwest. A 10-year-old girl was found in Oklahoma City after seven years on the missing list.

``This child had a fictitious name, a fictitious date of birth. She had been moved around - every year a different address,'' says Nick Pittman, detective with the Oklahoma City police. ``There's no way, other than with that picture, we could have found her. It's scary how close the picture was.''

``He [Barrows] wouldn't take any money from me, either,'' explains the girl's father, a resident of Boulder, Colo., who requests that all family names be withheld.

For Barrows, all this isn't a business. It's a mission.

For more than two years, he set aside evenings and weekends to work on age progressions for desperate parents without charge.

But the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has changed this, bringing Barrows to its faculty. At present, UIC is only inches away from officially opening a National Research Center for the Identification of Missing Children. Barrows will be a key staffer two days a week.

Even though he'll now receive pay for his work, the UIC won't bill parents. Mr. Sadler will be in charge of the center's administration. Both men previously worked together at the Health Science Center, University of Texas, Dallas.

``If children have been missing three years or longer, parents are usually so broke from looking for the kids, they can't afford anything more,'' says Barrows, the father of three children.

And ``broke'' is exactly where Scott Fulmer found himself. ``I had paid $27,000 to just one investigator alone. And he didn't turn up anything,'' says Mr. Fulmer, a fireman in Leeds, Ala., who searched more than three years for his son, Christopher. He had been taken by his mother.

This particular drawing proved a special triumph for Barrows. It was the first time he had facially aged a child so young, transforming the snapshot of a 17-month-old tot into a five year old.

``It looked exactly like Christopher when I got him back,'' says Fulmer.

On the average, Barrows spends between eight and 20 hours on a drawing.

``Hardest for me to do is the soft tissue in the nose and the lips because they don't follow as predictable a pattern.'' From chin to under-the-eyes is tough, too, because the area is affected by teeth, diet, and heredity.

It was in the spring of 1985 that Barrows was pulled into this new art. NBC planned to televise a documentary on missing children, and producers scoured the nation, offering an honorarium for an artist willing to age photos for living-room viewers. Barrows was game.

On the TV show, Barrows displayed his drawings of two sisters, abducted from the Chicago area seven years before. Within 20 minutes of the telecast, phones jangled. The girls - 13 and 15 - were identified by school officials and neighbors in Ohio, marking a clear-cut victory for the process that Barrows hadn't yet tested.

Barrows's technique has proved itself. And while he wrestles with a hefty backlog, parents wait.

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