By Marisa Cowdry
The Florida woman was frantic: her 8-year-old grandson was missing again. Like nearly half of children with autism, her grandson was prone to wandering and could be in danger. Her local sheriff’s office responded quickly, calling on 11 agencies to help search for the child using bloodhounds, ATVs, and helicopters. A call was made to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), the leading nonprofit organization working with law enforcement on issues of missing and exploited children, at its Alexandria, Virginia headquarters requesting immediate assistance.
As it does in most critically missing children cases, NCMEC rapidly deployed a member of Team Adam to Florida and had another consultant on standby. A third consultant, Henry Schmidt, who is a search and rescue expert, began working on the case remotely from his home in Utah using a new software mapping tool on his iPad. Developed by one of NCMEC’s partners, ESRI, the software enables law enforcement to visually illuminate patterns on a map from scores of leads, and to plot search areas.
Schmidt plotted the location where the child went missing on a map and noted the various bodies of water that should be checked first. Many children with autism are attracted to water, and NCMEC has seen a spike in the number of children with special needs drowning. In case the child had been abducted, Schmidt was able to add more layers to the map: the locations of registered sex offenders and attempted abductions in the area.
The innovative software called Collector Application, developed by ESRI, eliminates the problem of having information scattered over a variety of locations and establishes a framework of analysis derived from the data. By overlaying data sets – even things such as areas already searched by dogs, which can be located through GPS devices on their collars – law enforcement can see how they correlate to one another and draw analytical conclusions faster and more efficiently.
Fifty hours after he was reported missing, the child was found in the woods, hiding under a bush, about a half-mile from his grandmother’s house. He was dehydrated, but safe.
Schmidt, retired from law enforcement after 33 years, said the new mapping software enabled him to advise those searching for the child in Florida from his home in Utah. “We’re able to take our experience and view the maps and segment them into searchable areas, so they’re not wasting valuable time and resources searching places they don’t need to,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt is one of NCMEC’s 85 Team Adam consultants (TACs), located throughout the United States. Team Adam, named after the abducted and murdered 6-year-old son of NCMEC cofounders John and Reve Walsh, is comprised of retired or former law enforcement officials who have been selected in a competitive process for their experience in the field of child abduction and sexual exploitation. Since the team was created 12 years ago, TACs have been deployed 890 times in every state but one, to help find more than 1,000 missing children.
Team Adam’s mission is supported by the annual federal grant NCMEC receives to serve as the nation’s clearinghouse on issues related to missing and exploited children. Team Adam consultants rapidly deploy anywhere in the United States where critically missing children cases are unfolding, provide technical assistance, and connect local law enforcement and victim families with a network of free NCMEC resources.
The program was established as a vehicle to get the best investigative tools and latest technology to the nation’s 16,000 local law enforcement agencies, more than half of which have fewer than 15 officers. Critically missing children cases can be complex and costly and can generate national media attention, putting a strain on already strapped agencies. Team Adam consultants are truly dedicated because they must remain on-call and respond at a moment’s notice.
The Collector Application mapping software they are using can provide law enforcement with more reference points as a case develops regarding people and places of interest, underscoring the importance of being able to relate new information in real time back to existing data already placed on the map.
Team Adam has been using the software for about six months, most recently in the case of missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. Investigators used the mapping system to plot the areas of high probability where Hannah might be, in relation to the movements of the suspect law enforcement identified.
In addition, NCMEC offers a wide variety of training and other free services to aid law enforcement in missing children and child sexual exploitation cases, including: case analysis and technical support; forensic support, including age progression; missing children photo distribution; unsolved case analysis; Child Victim Identification Program, which helps law enforcement identify victims portrayed in sexually explicit images; and the CyberTipline, which serves as the national reporting mechanism for suspected child sexual exploitation. For more information, visit missingkids.org.