IN November 1990, a man opened a bank account in Fairhope, Ala., with a young boy in tow.
Something about the man and the boy made a bank employee suspicious. The man said the boy was his son, but he seemed too old. He claimed to be a New York attorney, but he was driving a vehicle with Georgia plates. On a hunch, the employee called the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After further investigation, the FBI contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in Arlington, Va., which has helped recover more than 19,000 children since 1984. The center searched its database and correctly matched the case with Jonathon Celom, who had been missing for months. Authorities arrested his abductor and reunited the boy with his mother.
The Celom case is one example of how technology is helping to find missing children.
Last March, a restaurant customer in Illinois overheard an unusual conversation. A woman, who called herself Melissa Smith, claimed she had been on the run for three years with her eight-year-old daughter, Tiffany. Notified of the incident, the center searched its database and matched the case with Tiffany Pittman, who had been abducted by her noncustodial mother in 1987.
The center also used a new computer technology, called age progression, to give authorities an updated image of Tiffany. Within days, the child was reunited with her father.
"Someone in America knows where these children are," says Ernie Allen, president of the center. The trick is to get the information to those people.
"The message is: This technology can find kids," adds Ralph Hammock, program administrator of desktop systems for IBM.
A little over a year ago, IBM, Sony, and a software company called QMA Corporation gave the center computer hardware and software that allows artists to "age" pictures of children who have been missing a long time.
One FBI forensic artist has used this technique for years by hand. The computer makes the work much quicker. It allows the artist to merge the picture of the missing child with photos of older siblings or parents to simulate growth. The results can be dramatic (see photos), although the technique is by no means foolproof.
Of the 4,000 cases of children missing more than two years, the center has aged some 100. Ten of them have been found, Mr. Allen says. "A 10 percent recovery rate may not sound very good. But [without] that technology, far fewer of these kids would be recovered."
Overall, the center reports that one of every seven children it features publicly is recovered. The center has just trained its first class of forensic artists to accelerate the age-progression of the long-term missing children.
The center has used the technique in a variety of ways. A British newspaper asked for the center's help in a couple of cases there. A Minnesota woman whose three sons disappeared without a trace in 1951 asked the center to age her children 40 years. Now, the center is getting calls from men in their 40s who think they may be one of the missing sons.
The center is also using other cutting-edge technologies to find missing children. It has a geographic information system to discern patterns of information.
If, for example, five children are abducted in five nearby towns, each local police department will probably work on the cases as single events. The center, by overlaying a highway map on a computerized map of the abductions, might discern a single kidnapper traveling along an Interstate highway
The center is also looking for donations of equipment so it can begin to link up the various state child-information centers into a computer network. That way images of missing children can be transmitted rapidly. The sooner the information gets out, Allen says, the more likely the recovery of the missing child.