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Adam's Legacy: Transforming how we search for missing children


National Missing Children’s Day, recognized every May 25, will be especially poignant this year at NCMEC as we celebrate our 40th anniversary. Since opening our doors in 1984, we’ve witnessed a dramatic transformation in the way our nation searches for missing children.   

If 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida today, the response would be very, very different than it was on July 27, 1981.

Today, unlike 40 years ago, a child abduction is entered into the FBI’s national crime database, giving law enforcement agencies in different jurisdictions real-time information to assist in the search. Missing child posters featuring Adam’s photo could quickly blanket Florida and could be shared on social media, national TV shows and trucker networks.

Rapid deployment teams would be available to mobilize investigative expertise and critical resources – search dogs, drones, landscape mapping, details on nearby sex offenders and any attempted abductions in the area. If the case fit the state’s criteria, highway signs and cellphones would light up with AMBER Alerts to mobilize the public. Adam’s face could appear on Ring videos and gas station TVs. There would be emotional support offered for Adam’s parents, John and Revé Walsh.

smartphone screen with blue background showing an amber alert

AMBER Alerts on phones help galvanize the public faster in a search.

Back in 1981, Adam’s parents had none of these resources available when their son was abducted. When Adam vanished, there was no coordinated national response in place to search for missing children. During the worst moment of their lives, they realized that no one had a plan to find Adam, and they were on their own searching for their child. Two weeks after his abduction, Adam was found murdered. John and Revé channeled their profound grief into action and created a national movement to help all missing and exploited children. They co-founded NCMEC on April 6, 1984 as the nation’s clearinghouse and resource center on issues related to missing and exploited children.

Over the past 40 years, while the world has changed in immeasurable ways, so has the way our nation responds when a child goes missing. A deeper understanding about issues facing children and advances in technology have enhanced the way we alert the public when a child is missing: 

  • Social media enables us to spread the word quickly and geo-target areas where a child is missing or may be now. 
  • AMBER Alerts are galvanizing people faster through their cellphones and other electronic devices to search for abducted children.
  • Here at NCMEC, we no longer wait for the media to call us. Instead, we proactively and intentionally engage media markets in areas where law enforcement believes a missing child may be.
  • We recently debuted an innovative way to search for missing children – using a hyper-localized QR code that allows users to view pictures of chlidren who went missing within a 50-mile radius.
  • Ring, GSTV and national television shows, like “America’s Most Wanted” and “On Patrol Live,” are helping us bring more children home. 

New laws are also having a profound impact on bringing children home. A law enacted on Sept. 29, 2014, for example, requires Social Services to report any child missing from care to both law enforcement and NCMEC. Tragically, the law was needed because so many children vanish from foster care and group homes and are never reported. You can’t find children if you don’t know they’re missing. Since the law was passed, more children missing from care are being recovered – our caseload has doubled – making the law itself a powerful tool.  

The spotlight on missing children in our country has never been brighter, thanks in great part to the tireless efforts of John and Revé Walsh.

john and reve walsh smiling. john is in a blue suit and reve is in a black dress and jacket

John and Revé Walsh: Champions for our nation’s children.

In 1981, after their son was abducted and murdered, they lobbied Congress tirelessly. “Where’s the Children’s Building?” Revé asked in a taxi when she and her husband landed in Washington. Today, NCMEC is that “children’s building.” Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, NCMEC has grown from a handful of employees to a staff of more than 450, with hundreds of volunteers and three regional branches across the United States.   

Two years after Adam’s abduction, President Reagan proclaimed May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day. It was named after 6-year-old Etan Patz who was abducted on that day in 1979. Etan was walking alone for the very first time to his school bus stop in New York City and has never been found.  

His shocking abduction, and that of Adam and other children around that time, including victims of the “Atlanta’s missing and murdered children,” awakened the nation to what was happening to its most vulnerable citizens. The next year, President Reagan officially opened NCMEC as the nation’s beacon of hope for families of missing and exploited children. 

black and white photo of young boy, etan patz. he has dark hair parted on his left side and is smiling for a portrait

National Missing Children’s Day honors Etan Patz.

Since that day, we’ve helped law enforcement recover more than 426,000 missing children. Our partnerships with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs, federal law-enforcement agencies and private donors have grown stronger. We have a rapid deployment team comprised of experienced retired law-enforcement officers called Team Adam. Our Adam Program signs up citizens and businesses for email alerts if a child is missing in their area. Code Adam keeps kids safer in businesses, parks, government buildings – all named in Adam's memory.  

Because of what happened to Adam, we’re all working together now to help missing and exploited children. What a remarkable legacy Adam has left on our nation.