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NCMEC on a Mission: President signs law expanding our reach


Once known as “the milk carton people” – the organization that put missing kids on milk cartons across America – the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has continually evolved over the past 40 years as crimes against children have evolved, driven primarily by the internet and rapid advances in technology.

The Missing Children’s Assistance Reauthorization Act (the Act), signed by President Biden today, June 17, and re-authorized every four years, has supported NCMEC since 1984 and spells out just how much our mission has expanded over the past four decades.

split screen: top left: modern lobby area of new NCMEC headquarters with natural light and wall of  flatscreen tvs; bottom right: black and white photo of five-story brick office building

NCMEC headquarters in Old Town Alexandria, then and now (top).

Today, NCMEC is the largest and most influential child safety organization in the nation with a rapidly growing global reach. The Act designates NCMEC to perform 16 programs that comprise the backbone of the organization’s mission for which our non-profit organization receives federal funding. An exciting new authorized program, our sixteenth, was added this year, which will enhance our ability to help support survivors and learn more from their experiences. 

“Over the years, we’ve continued to expand our programs as we learn how children can be harmed, and NCMEC continues to be very responsive to new threats to children,” said Yiota Souras, our chief legal counsel who shepherded the legislation through Congress. “This Act is the recognition by Congress that NCMEC is uniquely qualified to fulfill these 16 programs to keep children safe.”

NCMEC was created 40 years ago after a succession of child abductions and murders – 6-year-old Etan Patz walking to his school bus, 6-year-old Adam Walsh shopping at the mall with his mom, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch delivering newspapers in his neighborhood – that shocked the country and touched off a national children’s movement.

split screen: top left: john and reve walsh speak at a 40th anniversary NCMEC event; bottom right: john and reve walsh attend rose garden ceremony at white house in honor of establishing ncmec

NCMEC co-founders John and Revé Walsh attend Rose Garden ceremony with then-President Reagan; Forty years later they celebrate anniversary.

In a Rose Garden ceremony attended by then-President Reagan in 1984, NCMEC was recognized as the national missing children clearinghouse to work in partnership with the Justice Department to develop a coordinated national response to the problem of missing and exploited children.

We began operating the 24/7 national hotline (1-800-THE-LOST) and have handled more than five million calls, and we have helped law enforcement recover more than 426,000 missing children. While missing children were our primary focus when we opened our doors, our role helping sexually exploited children has vastly expanded as their numbers have skyrocketed.

As the internet was gaining steam in 1998, NCMEC created the CyberTipline, which Congress later recognized as the designated place where the public and electronic service providers (ESPs) can report suspected online child sexual exploitation. From just a handful of reports, the number has soared to more than 36 million last year alone. 

blog, image, logo, cybertipline

Most reports pertain to child sexual abuse material (CSAM) that show the sexual abuse, even rape, of children as young as infants – images that often circulate millions of times around the globe on the internet and cause trauma to victims long after the abuse has stopped. 

In the Act, the term “child pornography” has now been replaced with the more accurate term “CSAM.” That’s a big deal, because child pornography doesn’t begin to capture what’s really happening in these images with nothing consensual about it. They’re crime scene photos.

NCMEC and other child safety organizations have already embraced the term “CSAM,” but many references, including in federal law, still refer to the crime as child pornography. Yet, changing the language in the Act is a momentous start, and other legislation aspires to make the language uniform everywhere. 

The Act also changes the terminology for “sex tourism,” a crime that occurs when someone travels to another country to have sex with children. It will now be referred to as “extraterritorial child sexual abuse and exploitation” to clarify that these are child victims.

Operating the CyberTipline, along with 40 years of experience helping missing and exploited children, has put NCMEC in a unique position to spot trends and evolving crimes against children, most recently financial sextortion, a type of online enticement. This knowledge helps us warn the public and drives our prevention and training efforts.

We work with families, law enforcement, ESPs, technology companies, non-governmental entities and others on methods to reduce and remove the existence and distribution of online images and videos of sexually exploited children. We help schools educate children on the dangers of the internet, and Congress has now recognized our role in providing prevention education on child sex trafficking, youth-produced CSAM and online enticement.

CSAM can have a devastating and lasting impact on child survivors well into adulthood, and we train counselors how to help with this unique type of trauma. As their images are shared over and over on the internet millions of times, some survivors hide their faces or avoid public places for years out of fear someone will recognize them. Survivors of child sex trafficking face similar, complex challenges.

While the internet and technology have made it easier to exploit children online worldwide – virtually erasing geographic boundaries – technology also has enhanced our ability to fight back and find missing and exploited children more quickly. 

Through our Child Victim Identification Program, we’re able to help law enforcement identify and recover children depicted in these horrific images and videos. So far, more than 28,000 children have been recovered that we can document.

split screen: top left: a ncmec forensic artist works on an age progression image; bottom right: two milk cartons next to each other show pictures and information of two missing kids

We’ve long replaced milk cartons with technology to share missing kid photos faster. Forensic Imaging Specialist Paloma Galzi age progresses a child’s photo.

We’ve long replaced milk cartons with much faster and more effective ways of telling the public when a child is missing, including amplifying AMBER Alerts, distributing missing posters to geotargeted areas, using the megaphone of social media and even creating a QR code that shows missing children on your phone in a 50-mile radius anywhere you are.

With a law that now requires social services agencies to report missing children to both law enforcement and NCMEC, we’re able to search for many children who were never reported missing. The Act recognizes NCMEC’s expanded support to provide more help to Tribal law enforcement and welfare agencies in those communities.

We’re also doing more to help find long-term missing children and give their names back to hundreds of deceased children whose remains have not been identified by tapping into new advances in DNA testing and genealogy. We provide forensic and on-site technical assistance in child abduction and exploitation cases, including a rapid response team, age progressions and facial reconstruction of skeletal remains.

We’ve come a long, long way since the days when we were known as “the milk carton people.” But one thing will never change: We will always keep our porch light on until we bring all missing children home.