FBI and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

July 12, 2011

A child goes missing every 40 seconds in America. That comes to 765,000 children a year.

Audio Transcript

Mollie Halpern: Their laughter, their playfulness, their innocence. It’s unthinkable, but that can all be stolen when children become victims of crimes like sexual exploitation or kidnapping. A child goes missing every 40 seconds in America. That comes to 765,000 children a year.

Ernie Allen: “I think every day we discover how enormous and under-recognized this problem really is.”

Halpern: I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and you’re listening to “Inside the FBI.” To protect children, the FBI works hand-in-hand with its law enforcement partners and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The center is a private, non-profit organization which serves as the official national resource center and information clearinghouse for missing and exploited children.

At-risk children were the focus of a recent special edition of the television show San Diego’s Most Wanted. The Bureau’s San Diego Field Office co-produces the program with local Fox affiliate KSWB. Special Agent in Charge Keith Slotter hosts the program.

Keith Slotter: “Welcome to San Diego’s Most Wanted, The FBI Files. I’m Keith Slotter.”

Halpern: Slotter and the crew traveled to our nation’s capital, where he sat down with Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Hear excerpts of the revealing interview between Slotter and Allen about the case of a missing baby reunited with her parents 23 years after her abduction.

But first, Allen tells us how the vision for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children came into existence…

Allen: Like so many things in American life, it was born out of tragedy. It really was a byproduct of a series of terrible cases in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Best known of which was of course the abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in Hollywood, Florida in 1981. And, in 1984, we proposed the creation of a kind of national resource center; a place that would tie together, create a national response to these kinds of cases. My vision, candidly, was that it should be a wing of the FBI, and it was the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who said if this going to work it needs to be a private organization working in partnership with government. So on June 13, 1984, the president of the United States officially announced the opening of a new national center for missing and exploited children. So, we’ve been here now 27 years.

Halpern: When the number of cases the National Center of Missing & Exploited Children handles is measured against the number of children found, the recovery rate is 97 percent and climbing.

Allen: And, that’s for several basic reasons. One is the power of technology. What used to take days and weeks—distributing images and information, generating leads, providing analysis—now takes minutes. Secondly, there is no question that law enforcement is better prepared, has better policy and procedures in place, and responds more swiftly and more effectively today than ever before. The FBI is responding to these cases like never before, no longer requiring, as in the days 30 years ago, a ransom note or proof of interstate transportation. So, what the FBI’s doing is historic and is saving lives and bringing children home.

Halpern: The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children also houses an exploited child division.

Allen: We’re also the hub, working in partnership with the FBI in attacking the whole issue of child pornography. Our staff downstairs has reviewed and analyzed 47 million child pornography images and videos in an effort to identify, locate, and rescue the child. We are currently receiving 250,000 images a week and have FBI agents and analysts from the Innocent Images National Initiative here on site to help us in that effort. So, we continue to, I think, to primarily focus on the missing. But, it’s clear that more is being done today to address the issue of child sexual exploitation than at any time in American history, and that’s a good thing.

Halpern: To date, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has worked about 180,000 missing child cases. One case that that stands out to Allen is what he calls the “miracle case” of Carlina White.

Allen: A child abducted at the age of 3 weeks old from Harlem Hospital in New York, who 15, 16 years later, starts to decide there’s something wrong with her life. Members of her family don’t look like her; she discovers that on her birth certificate it says parents unknown. When she wanted to get her driver’s license, she discovered that she didn’t have basic documents. Well, on December 19 of 2010, Carlina White, known by another name—the name she was given by her abductor—called our hotline, and she talked to one of our young hotline operators. I think the normal inclination of most human beings who have somebody call them and say, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t think I belong in this family,” is probably, “Yeah, you know, there’s something wrong with you.” But this young woman listened to her and interviewed her, capturing key descriptive information and details. One of our analysts then took that information and began to rule cases out. And after a few days, we concluded that this 23-year-old woman calling us and telling us she didn’t know who she really was and didn’t think she was in the right place, was probably Carlina White. We alerted the New York Police Department. Their investigators followed up—she was living in Georgia, they went to Georgia, they interviewed her, they took a DNA sample, and it was confirmed that this was that child abducted 23 years ago. Well, people say to me all the time,”Well that’s a miracle story, that just doesn’t happen every day.” What we try to say to these families, is just because a child has been missing for a day or a week or a month or a year, or even 23 years, doesn’t mean that there’s not hope.

Halpern: White was eventually reunited with her birth parents.

Allen: We have a family advocacy division here that tries to assist in the reunification process. And so, what we try to do is we have a network of resources around the country—psychologists and others who help these families with the reunification process. People say, “Well can she ever live a normal life?” Our response to that is you seek a kind of new normal.

Halpern: Tens of thousands of cases do not have happy endings like Carlina’s. But stories like hers help keep Allen and his colleagues going.

Allen: We feel like there’s a scoreboard every day at the center, and you measure your success or your failure in terms of real human lives. We have to remind ourselves every day, is you can’t get caught up with the numbers, you have to focus on the fact that what we are trying to do is try to recover America’s missing children, one child at a time.

Halpern: To learn more about San Diego’s Most Wanted and how the FBI works to prevent and solve crimes involving children, visit www.fbi.gov. And to get more information on the Center for Missing & Exploited Children, visit www.missingkids.com.

I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau, and you’ve been listening to “Inside the FBI.”

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