This National Missing Children's Day, law enforcement officials are raising awareness for not only the plight of children who have disappeared, but also for the rapidly expanding suite of technological tools being developed to help bring them home.
A child is reported missing around once every 40 seconds in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, often leaving families and communities feeling desperate.
But the good new is that parents, police, and communities now have more tools than ever before to secure missing children's safe return, from AMBER alerts delivered via smartphones and social media to an FBI-sponsored app that keeps vital information at parents' fingertips in the event that a missing persons report needs to be filed.
"That pit in your stomach is about the worst feeling a parent can have," FBI Supervising Special Agent James Lewis told CBS Miami. Mr. Lewis acknowledged that missing children often turn up after simply playing around or wandering off. But such situations sometimes turn into a missing person case, an outcome Lewis says guardians should always be prepared for.
"We encourage the parents to have a plan. It's crucial hours," he told CBS. "If your child goes missing from the mall or the park, you don't want to be fumbling around for a picture or description to give to the law enforcement agency."
Lewis promoted the bureau's Child ID App, a "user friendly" program which allows parents to keep an updated record of their child's image and personal information in case they go missing.
Other companies, ranging from Uber to Facebook, have recently made efforts to utilize smartphones and the Internet to facilitate distribution of information about missing children. In October, Uber partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to update its drivers about missing youth. Last year, Facebook announced a NCMEC collaboration that brings AMBER Alerts to its news feeds.
NCMEC executive director Gavin Portnoy says the partnerships are designed to increase awareness of the missing as news and social media becomes saturated with other content that could bury the story of a missing child.
"There was a time in the '80s when, if a kid goes missing, it's front-page news, no matter where it is," Mr. Portnoy told the Monitor after Uber announced its partnership with NCMEC, saying that the center can now "leverage social media to force media markets to pay attention."
The national day of awareness was first observed in 1983, marking the anniversary of the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York City in 1979. That incident kicked off an early 1980s push for more resources to find and help missing children, resulting in the creation of the National Crime Information Center database and the start of NCMEC.
"National Missing Children's Day is a day to remember Etan and the many other missing children who are still out there," NCMEC Missing Children's Division vice president Robert Lowery said in a press release.
Law enforcement never did give up on Etan's case. On Tuesday, 37 years after his disappearance, a judge scheduled a retrial for Pedro Hernandez of Maple Shade, N.Y., who has been charged with Etan's murder. A previous trial last year ended in a hung jury.
"We never, ever stop looking," Mr. Lowery said.