NEW YORK (AP) -- Elizabeth Norton immediately suspected an abduction when her ex-husband failed to return on time with their two children. So she quickly contacted authorities and began circulating photos.
Ultimately, it was the Internet that reunited mother with Andrew and Jonathan nine months later. A woman who got suspicious about her new neighbors searched a Web site on missing children, where she found Jonathan's photo.
"The Internet absolutely provided a convenient vehicle that very moment she wanted to confirm her suspicions," Norton said. "Without that, I don't know what would have happened."
Indeed, with Saturday being National Missing Children's Day, organizations that help locate missing children are praising the Internet and other new technologies for speeding and increasing recoveries.
Without the Net, the neighbor would have had to call a hotline and try to make a match using verbal descriptions. Or she would have had to spot a flyer at a Wal-Mart or on a telephone pole.
Jenni Thompson of the Polly Klaas Foundation, a missing-children organization in Petaluma, Calif., said that while parents often worry about molesters making contact with kids online, "we need to remember that the Internet can be used for good things as well."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children credits the Internet for directly finding 48 children since 2000. That's greater than two other primary methods -- 44 through Wal-Mart posters and 19 through postcards sent with bulk mailings.
The Internet and other technologies play a contributory role in thousands of other missing-children cases each year.
"In one way or another we use the Internet in every case," said Mike Gibson, president of Operation Lookout in Everett, Wash. "It's just too valuable a tool to not use whenever possible."
Internally, investigators use online resources such as reverse phone directories -- where entering a number gets you a name and address -- to track down family members suspected of abducting a kid. Law enforcement also has its own network for sharing confidential details on suspects.
At the national missing children center, forensics imaging specialist Steve Loftin uses Photoshop software to portray what children might look like now, years after they were last seen. The age-progression photos are credited in 111 recoveries since 2000.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sherry Friedlander runs an automated dialing service where computers can place 1,000 calls in five minutes asking neighbors to be on the lookout for a runaway or other missing child.
"If you had to go to 500 doors and knock on them, that would take you more than two hours," Friedlander said, adding that every minute counts when an abduction is involved.
E-mail allows groups to send out thousands of alerts instantly, and it lets people submit tips from the comfort of their homes.
"Some people are just intimidated talking to police," said Rod Hegman, manager of the Delaware State Police's Missing Children Information Clearinghouse.
Of course, using the Internet won't guarantee success, nor will it completely replace traditional methods like milk cartons, grocery bags, flyers and bulk mail inserts.
And unlike posters in the neighborhoods, a Web site needs to be visited to be seen. Web sites for the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service, Compaq and other organizations link to a searchable database
, but they aren't always prominent or even on the home page.
E-mail alerts can get a photo out quickly, but they can also linger for years, continually forwarded by well-intended Internet users long after the child is found. A few hoaxes also have been circulating online.
Still, the Internet can spread information farther and faster.
Though Norton had posted pictures of Andrew and Jonathan in her and her ex-husband's neighborhoods in New York state, he had left the area with the kids and eventually ended up in a trailer park near San Jose, Calif.
The neighbor who spotted them contacted the sheriff's office in Dutchess County, N.Y., using a number listed with Jonathan's online photo. Authorities in California arrested the ex-husband, who later pleaded guilty to felony custodial interference.
In another case, the New York State Police sent high-quality photos instantly to sheriffs in Broward County, Fla., who then found an abducted child at a Pompano Beach hotel.
Without the Internet, it could take days to mail a photo, process it in an outside lab, prepare printed flyers and distribute them.
"When someone e-mails me a picture, I can have it up within a half-hour," said Wendie Nerem, coordinator for the Iowa Missing Person Information Clearinghouse. "It just makes the time frame so much faster."
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