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New technology can help find missing children

Posted at 5:19 PM, Feb 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-02 00:14:37-05

There are thousands of missing children in the United States and experts have new tools to make the search more efficient.  

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a database of them online. 

Pat Sessions knows one of the pages in an intimate and painful way.  His daughter Tiffany went missing in 1989.  While she's presumed dead, her body has never been recovered.  

The 20-year-old college student went jogging without her purse, ID card and keys.  There is still hope clues could lead to more information in the case.

"I remember we were circling coming into the airport and I looked down.  As far as you can see it was trees. You couldn't see anything. And I thought to myself, 'Jesus, if she's out there we're never going to find her,' " Sessions recalled.

Sessions has spent years helping other families going through the daunting process in the early stages of missing their children. Time is crucial in the recovery of a person, though there are cases where an individual is located alive years or even decades later.

"It was just like go, go, go, go. Because we all knew every day that went by, things were just getting worse and worse," Sessions said.

Sessions says his fear for his daughter started at a level 1 out of 10 because he figured it was just a failure in communication and that his daughter would turn up.  That shifted to panic in the minutes and hours to come.

"The first couple of days, I was terrorized. I knew by noon that when I got up there if she hadn't called in then something had happened."

Nancy McBride is the Executive Director of Florida Outreach for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. 

"This is like memory lane over here," she said, walking to a credenza in her office filled with framed pictures.  Some feature McBride alongside parents in key moments of their cases.  Anguish is palpable on the faces of a few.  

NCMEC has many areas of focus, which include recovery but also prevention.

Back in the day, standing over my printing press, going faster, faster, faster. as she would print missing children fliers.

Recovery rates have improved from 62% in 1990 to 97% today.

A major help - new technology.

"We don't want somebody looking for a child who's been missing for ten years with the same picture we had in the beginning," said McBride.

An artist painted this face from still-unidentified skeletal remains which were found decades ago.

But this face was faster to make through age-progression technology.

Mark Gianturco says artificial intelligence may be an even bigger help. Computers dig through millions of tips, pictures and text - even in the illegal dark web - to draw connections not obvious to the human eye.

"So you can look at another image, tag that as being problematic and then we can automatically identify, the tens, hundreds, tens of thousands of other images there are close to it," Gianturco says.

Just two dozen people on his team send things on to law enforcement. The new tech even shields those workers from fatigue and trauma.

"I'm happy to say that I've never seen a single image and we take pains to make sure that even for the people developing the technologies, the images are shielded," he says.

 "We believe there are live children out there, we just got to find them," says McBride.

For each of their stories, hope lives.

"You don't ever want to see anyone else ever go through it," Sessions says.

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