ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WNCN) – The moment the world stops for a parent is when their child goes missing.
The numbers concerning missing children are staggering, as the FBI reports nearly 470,000 children went missing in 2014.
In North Carolina, at least 151 children are missing and 18 of those are missing from the WNCN viewing area.
Forensic imaging specialists at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, are using a process called age progression in hopes of bringing each child home.
“We’re probably our own worst critic when we’re looking at these images,” said Joe Mullins.
Mullins has worked as a forensic imaging specialist for 16 years at the NCMEC.
The imaging specialists call themselves the “Ambassadors of Hope.”
“I’d love to be out of a job,” Mullins said.
Finding the face of a child
The imaging specialists digitally alter the physical appearance of a missing child using the image editing software to show how the missing person might look years after their disappearance.
“As a forensic artist, I live in a wonderful world where art and science have to get along,” Mullins said. “Those two worlds have to come together because we need a forensic anthropologist. We need the medical examiner, the law enforcement aspect of it, but the science has to be there.”
Mullins said there is a very limited artistic license the specialists take when altering an image.
“We have certain parameters we have to work within and have to follow to get a more accurate picture,” he said.
There is no “auto enhance” button to automatically progress the age of a child.
“It’s good old fashioned Adobe Photoshop. It’s a manual manipulation of the images, it’s more technique than technology,” Mullins said.
A child must be missing for at least two years to be eligible for an age progression. An imaging specialist would make adjustments every two years until the child would turn 18.
“Hopefully the child is recovered and they don’t grow up on our computer screen,” Mullins said.
Once 18, the age is progressed every five years.
“Ideally we want reference pictures of mom and dad at or around the age the child would be today,” he said.
The imaging specialists compares facial growth and features focusing on the parent the child favors.
“It’s a good starting point so we can pick features right from the family tree and apply it on that child’s face. It makes a more accurate image,” Mullins said.
Younger children are more difficult
As a rule, that technique is not used on children under the age of 3.
The younger the child, the more difficult it is to age progress.
That is what makes the case of Aric Austin a remarkable one.
“Doing an age progression on an infant like Aric Austin’s case where he was one and half months old and we didn’t get the case until 21 years later,” Mullins said. “There’s not a lot of information in a 1-and-a-half year olds face to do an age progression.”
The searching mother gave the NCMEC all kinds of photos that helped balance out of the composite or guess work.
Austin was reunited with this mother at the age of 22.
Mullins age-progressed Jaycee Dugard, a case that made national headlines.
Dugard was kidnapped at the age of 11 and found at 29.
Dugard’s mom supplied photos that helped Mullins as Jaycee shares a strong resemblance to her.
“The searching mother, father, they’re the experts on the child, anything they can help us with, we welcome their input along the way,” Mullins said.
Mullins said hair style and clothing is very subjective in the age progression, as long as the face is right, that is what will spark that recognition.
What did Mullins think when he saw a photo of Dugard after she was found?
“My first reaction was, ‘I wish I had gotten her hair darker.’ ”
He recently met Dugard and told her she is a beacon of hope for other families out there.
Hoping to spark recognition
Mullins said the age progressions created by imaging specials are accurate, but there is more to it than that.
“The secret to success is the right person still has to see it,” he said.
Mullins asks for everyone to take time next time you see a photo of a missing child.
“Just take five seconds to stare at the face. That face could be the one that you see at the grocery store or dropping off your kids. Something may trigger some memories, just take a second and look at that,” he said.
The goal of age progression is to keep cases alive and to remind the public these children are still missing.
“It does work, we can get these kids home where they belong,” Mullins said.
The NCMEC works in conjunction with the FBI and distributes the age progressed images through thousands of police departments and hundreds of private distributors.