Every 40 seconds, a child goes missing somewhere in the United States, which works out to more than 460,000 missing kids last year, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. That is a staggering and sobering number on its own, but what is even more distressing is the fact that the longer a child is missing, the more vulnerable they are to becoming a victim of child sex trafficking and other forms of human trafficking.
Law enforcement agencies at every level — national, state and local — do an excellent job of trying to locate missing children and, where appropriate, bringing their kidnappers or traffickers to justice. However, local police departments must prioritize criminal cases, so they focus their attention on abductions. As a result, they often lack the technology, resources and staffing to aggressively search for every single runaway child.
Our organization, 4theONE, is one of many non-profits that are trying to stand in that gap to find teenagers who have been reported as runaways, missing or suspected trafficking victims. We are a 100% volunteer organization, including an all-volunteer team of investigators who work in parallel with local law enforcement agencies and the families of these missing children to try to find the kids as quickly as possible. We never have direct contact with the children themselves. We gather intelligence, visually confirm their location, and call in law enforcement to physically rescue them — our goal is to help locate and rescue them before they can be trafficked for labor or sexual purposes.
Our team of skilled professionals includes specially trained volunteers and licensed private investigators with experience in computer science, digital forensics, education, social services, mental health and medicine. We conduct a vast amount of online research and perform interviews to try to determine with whom the child was communicating, their last known whereabouts and follow other investigative leads to try to determine the child’s possible location.
Once we have a pretty good idea of where they might be, we enlist the assistance of one of our volunteer private investigators to try to confirm the precise location and document who the child is with at the time. Then we turn the matter over to local law enforcement officers to step in and physically secure the child, returning them to their parents or guardians. Since 2015, we have helped find 99 children who were missing; sadly, 53 of those kids were victims of trafficking or exploitation.
In the process of our investigative work, it’s very common for one of our volunteers to find small traces of electronic evidence in a social media posting or perhaps a thumbnail photograph on a digital device. It can be very difficult and time-consuming for a volunteer investigator to manually comb through that data, but our organization has recently been given a significant boost with the adoption of AccessData’s Forensic Toolkit (FTK), a leading digital forensics software product.
FTK is widely recognized as a powerful computer forensics tool and has a reputation among digital forensic investigators as being the easiest product on the market to use. The software enables professionals to zero in on relevant evidence quickly, conduct faster searches and dramatically increase analysis speed. This is crucial for us because our investigators are now able to deploy FTK and harvest important digital evidence that will help us locate a missing child even faster. Moreover, FTK is a court-cited tool for conducting digital forensics, so we have the confidence of knowing that all data is being collected in a forensically sound manner that will hold up in court, should local law enforcement authorities seek to proceed with criminal charges against a child predator.
We work with families at no cost to them whatsoever, so we rely on the manpower of our volunteers and the generosity of our donors. In this spirit, we’re very grateful to have forged a new partnership with AccessData, which has agreed to provide 4theONE with a free FTK license and is providing free online training to our volunteers so that we can equip more digital forensics investigators to help us find more kids.
If you are a digital forensics professional or a licensed private investigator, we would love to speak to you about how you can join us in this worthy effort. The more volunteer investigators we have working on our team, the more missing children we can locate. Please visit www.4theONE.org for more information.
The number of kids who go missing each year is staggering, but we are committed to doing as much as we can to finding and rescuing each one.
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About the Author:
Dennis Ozment is executive director of 4theONE, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and rescuing children who are missing, exploited or trafficked. 4theONE is an all-volunteer organization and is able to help rescue more children with the assistance of additional private investigators and digital forensics professionals. To learn more about 4theONE or to volunteer your services to the organization, please go to www.4theone.org.