E-Sleuths to the Rescue

Web-based system helps in the search for missing children .

The Internet's ability to transmit information to millions of users with a few mouse clicks has always offered promise as a tool for law enforcement agencies in the search for missing children. Today, a first-of-its-kind, privately developed, Web-based alert system is helping those agencies deal with perhaps one of the most frustrating jobs of law enforcement, where clues are few and time is of the essence.

The Emergency Internet Alert System (EIAS), developed and operated by Spring Lake, N.J.-based Safe Kids International, is making the job a little easier. When a child is reported missing to local authorities, the EIAS is activated. After a police report has been filed, the missing child's photo and other pertinent information are sent to Safe Kids by either the law enforcement agency overseeing the case or the child's parents. The company uses the data to prepare and send e-mail alerts, which include a photo and biographical data, to thousands of online law enforcement agencies, schools, hospitals, transportation terminals and a growing base of private citizens within the geographic region from which the child disappeared. The alert messages include a link to the Safe Kids International Web page, where users can print copies of preformatted flyer notices containing the photo and descriptive data for posting in neighborhoods.

The system is the brainchild of Joe Florentine, a former real estate agent and entrepreneur who grew tired of reading about the rising number of juvenile abductions as cash-strapped law enforcement agencies struggled to keep up.

"Realistically, the Internet has provided us with the ability to track missing children anywhere in the world," Florentine said. "The ultimate goal is to see this system fully implemented for law enforcement."

Needle in the Haystack

Two years in development, the Safe Kids EIAS went into operation in January, when it issued its first alert for a 17-year-old reported missing from Sayreville, N.J. The system successfully transmitted over 10,000 messages in the first days of the case. Sadly, the missing girl's body was found a few days later, but Florentine was encouraged by the overwhelming response to the system by the public and private sectors that he pressed on, mortgaging his home to finance the operation.

In May, Safe Kids International celebrated its first victory in its war on juvenile abductions when it helped recover 16-year-old Candice Sharp. Reported missing in Alabama in March, she was found in Arkansas nearly two months later after a Safe Kids International volunteer recipient recognized her face from one of the thousands EIAS alerts sent during a 30-day period.

Once a missing-person report is filed, law enforcement officials say, the chances of locating the child depend on the ability to create immediate awareness within the geographical region involved. The faster a child's photo, description and other pertinent data can be distributed, the better the chances of recovery. The ability of EIAS to blanket specific geographic areas with alerts means the eyes and ears of the public can be put on the case before the trail grows cold.

"The most important part of a missing-person case is the first few hours, when we really need to get the word out to as many people as possible," said Sgt. Joe Mantegna of the Manchester, N.J., Police Department, who provided guidance to Safe Kids during early development of the system. "As soon as a child is missing, this system allows information and pictures to be passed through neighborhoods very quickly. It's fantastic."

Partners Against Crime

The success of the system, Florentine said, is attributed to the enthusiastic response it's received from overburdened law enforcement agencies, which handle more than 30,000 missing children cases each year, according to FBI statistics. Many law enforcement agencies, particularly those with fewer personnel, have linked their own Web sites to the Safe Kids International site, making it easier for parents to obtain critical information, such as specific steps to take if a child is missing. Of the approximately 20,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, Florentine estimates that about 4,000 are in the Safe Kids International database as alert recipients. The roster of volunteer agencies includes the Texas Missing Persons Unit, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and police departments in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Stephenville, Texas.

Bracing for the Future
If Joe Florentine gets his way, a union of space-borne technology and simple fashion will one day make happy endings the rule, not the exception, in missing children cases. The 38-year-old CEO of Safe Kids International hopes to ultimately outfit kids with a bracelet containing a microchip capable of detection by orbiting GPS satellites or cellular telephone receivers.

Similar to emergency-locator beacons used by mariners worldwide, the gadget would allow authorities to pinpoint the location of a missing child and track the child's movement. While the technology to make a transmitter and power supply small enough to fit the bracelet may not be available until until well into the 21st century, Florentine believes the system has potential. He plans to move ahead with its development and ultimately hopes to market the devices and an accompanying monitoring service, which he likens to the service homeowners pay for monitored home security systems.

Although the device may sound far-fetched, Florentine is quick to note that the very concept of e-mail and the Internet were viewed in the same light 20 years ago.

As agencies continue to come on-line with Web sites, Safe Kids will invite them to become volunteer recipients. The company employs a private detective to interface with participating agencies and follow-up on leads.

The quick and accurate exchange of information between Safe Kids and local schools, libraries and law enforcement agencies is critical to the success of the EIAS. Once information is received, it is immediately verified with the overseeing agency. Staff quickly scans photos and prepares an alert message within 10 minutes of receiving the information. The alert flyer is uploaded to the Safe Kids Web site and alert e-mails are sent within 30 minutes using six standard dial-up modem connections. The company plans a switch to ISDN when it relocates to new offices this fall.

As its name suggests, Safe Kids International's service has extended beyond U.S. borders. The company recently helped law enforcement agencies track a 4-year-old abducted in a domestic dispute into Mexico. Relatives from another side of the child's family picked up Safe Kids e-mail alerts that had been translated into Spanish and contacted the FBI. Japan's Web police unit has linked its site to the Safe Kids home page.

Searching for Dollars

One of the biggest hurdles facing Safe Kids International is securing funding to keep the system operational. With the volume of missing-child alerts it processes growing daily, the company's staff of four is experiencing some growing pains. Florentine says he hopes to fund future growth with federal grant money set aside in next year's federal budget for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In the meantime, the company is relying on corporate sponsorship through its Companies Who Care program, and recently inked Fleet Bank as its first major corporate supporter.

Florentine hopes that future revenue will also come from the sale of child security systems he plans to market. These kits will help parents electronically gather photos, biographical data and other information on their children for storage on a disk so it can be quickly transmitted to Safe Kids International in the event a child becomes lost.

Long-term plans include developing software to allow personnel from individual law enforcement agencies and other organizations to quickly assemble alerts when and where a child is reported missing.

"We would like to see this, ultimately, as a uniform recovery system for missing kids," Florentine said. "My vision of what this system could do is similar to what 'America's Most Wanted' and 'Unsolved Mysteries' have done for TV."


Agencies and individuals wishing to be added to the database of alert recipients may contact Safe Kids International at 888/820-5437. E-mail.
Tom Byerly is an Elk Grove, Calif.-based writer. E-mail.

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