Saving children’s lives, one image at a time.
How the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) partners with Adobe to help find missing and at-risk kids while keeping others safe.
“Adobe solutions touch everything that we do — from finding children to engaging the public — and it helps us fulfill our mission of keeping children safe.”
President and CEO, NCMEC
One evening, Steve Carter was browsing the internet on his iPad when he came across a missing children’s website. Scrolling through the photographs, the 35-year-old software salesperson from Philadelphia made an astonishing discovery. When Carter looked closely at a composite picture of a missing child — created using age-progression technology — he recognized the kid’s smile and sandy-blonde hair.
“I got chills,” he told People. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, it’s me.’”
Carter had known that he was adopted at age four from an orphanage in Honolulu, Hawaii, but he never knew his real name or biological family. After finding his image on missingkids.org, run by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), Carter said he could finally put together the missing pieces of his life — more than 30 years later.
The art of age progression
Carter’s amazing story is a rare case, but it illustrates the powerful role of technology in the search for missing children. The picture that Carter recognized on missingkids.org was created by NCMEC’s forensic artists using Adobe Photoshop. Since the program began in 1989, NCMEC has used the software to age-progress more than 7,500 images of long-term missing children.
To create age progression images, NCMEC’s team of forensic artists start with a high-resolution image of the missing child and family reference photos. Then they use Photoshop to create and enhance their work by merging features in the reference photos with the knowledge they’ve gleaned about how children’s faces develop and age over time. “We like to call it our forensic artists’ superpower,” says Gavin Portnoy, vice president of communications and brand at NCMEC. “They’re blending art and science to help age progress kids and give faces to cases.”
With the latest artificial intelligence technology from Adobe Sensei, these forensic artists can now work more quickly as they blend and layer reference photos. Missing children’s photos are updated every two years until the child turns 18, so the added efficiency helps the artists keep up with their constant backlog.
“We like to call it our forensic artists’ superpower. They’re blending art and science to help age progress kids and give faces to cases.”
Vice President of Communications and Brand, NCMEC
Before NCMEC can post a missing child’s photos to their website and social media, they need the family’s consent. “Adobe Acrobat Sign really has been a game changer for us,” says Portnoy. “The team is able to turn forms around astronomically quickly.” NCMEC can put a signature request out for a contract and, in some cases, get it back within an hour. Wherever NCMEC can save time like this matters — the faster these images are updated and posted, the more likely it is someone will recognize them.
“Adobe solutions touch everything that we do,” said Michelle DeLaune, president and CEO at NCMEC. “We’ve helped to reunite hundreds of families because someone recognized age-progressed images we created using Adobe Photoshop. Seeing those children reunited with their families years later reminds us why we will never give up on finding our missing children.”
This includes children like Sara Eghbal-Brin. After being abducted at knifepoint in France when she was three years old, her mother never gave up hope of bringing her home. Three years later, French authorities contacted NCMEC, believing Sara was in North America. After NCMEC’s forensic artists created age-progressed images of what the girl might look like, Canadian police recognized Sara in the backseat of a car and were able to reunite her with her family.
Parents of missing children never give up hope. For three years, John Rex worked closely with NCMEC to find his two daughters, Hanna and Skye, who were taken from him in 2020 at ages seven and five. Part of the search was to share age-progressed images of the two girls on the television show On Patrol: Live, which is a docuseries that follows multiple law enforcement agencies across the country. In April 2023, Rex got the call he had been waiting for — his daughters had been found safe, in part because of key tips that came in after the age-progressed images were broadcasted.
“I’m so grateful for everyone’s support in helping us get to this day. Time froze three years ago when my beautiful girls were suddenly taken from my life,” says Rex. “I’m overjoyed and now focusing on getting the girls back home with me.”
The same goes for Kayla Unbehaun, who was nine years old when she was abducted from her father, Ryan Iserka, in July 2017. In May 2023, a store owner recognized her from an episode of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries, where age-progressed images showed what Kayla might look like after the six years since she went missing. The store owner called in a tip to the police, and Kayla has since been reunited with her father. “I’m overjoyed that Kayla is home safe,” Iserka said. “I want to thank [the Elgin, Illinois police and fire departments], the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and all of the law enforcement agencies who assisted with her case.”
Bringing names back to faces
In addition to age progression, NCMEC’s forensic artists also use Photoshop to create facial reconstructions that help identify deceased children. Recently, one of NCMEC’s forensic artists did a reconstruction of a cold case from the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office — over four days live at Comic-Con.
The forensic artist received a CT scan of the unidentified child’s skull and loaded into a 3D modeling program that allows them to see the skull from any angle. Using the 3D rendering of the skull, they were then able to sculpt the child’s face in clay — though these sculptures are often created digitally. During the sculpting process, the artist re-created what the unidentified child’s face may have looked like in life, reconstructing things like muscles, tissues, and skin. The artist then brought images of the 3D reconstruction into Photoshop, which allowed them to add details to the face, refining things like hair, irises, eyelashes, and shadows.
The forensic artist starts by mapping out details like muscle, tissue, and skin.
The completed 3D reconstruction is scanned into Photoshop.
In Photoshop, the forensic artist adds details to the unidentified child’s face.
“These facial reconstructions can be pivotal in investigations,” says DeLaune, who is in her 25th year at NCMEC. “Every single image produced by our forensic artists has the potential to give a child their name back. All it takes is one person to see that image, recognize the child, and call in a tip.”
While the identity of the child’s face that was reconstructed at Comic-Con is still unknown, this work helps bring new attention to the case. “We’re able to get a lot of eyes on it,” says Portnoy. “We can distribute that image out into the world and hopefully get a family some closure.”
This closure came to the family of a child whose remains were found in Massachusetts. NCMEC’s forensic artists were able to re-create an image of what the child may have looked like in life and share it across social media. “It was our first viral piece of content,” says Portnoy. The photo had over 60 million shares and views, which led to the child’s identification and the perpetrators being charged.
It’s cases where families find this closure that keep others hopeful. Forensic artists at NCMEC have created more than 550 facial reconstructions of deceased children, which has assisted in identifying 139 deceased children.
“We have remarkably talented people who give it their all to try to make sure that that these children don’t drop off the sight of the public,” says DeLaune. “Being able to use digital tools alongside strategic genealogy to try to give these children back their names and to bring some answers to the families — that’s what we’re here to do.”
Uncovering the clues
Alongside cases of missing children, the NCMEC forensic team works with law enforcement to identify current victims of exploitation and their captors in photos and video footage. For this, they use Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe Audition. “We receive more than 70,000 cases of child sexual exploitation every day,” says DeLaune. “Adobe Creative Cloud for enterprise plays an essential role in helping us identify victims, determine their possible locations, and ultimately provide law enforcement with information that can help them rescue a child from harm.”
Cases are often handled through NCMEC’s Child Victim Identification Program, which uses information that they receive through their CyberTipline. In the last year alone, 29 million reports came in through the CyberTipline from electronic service providers as well as the public.
“Each one of those reports brings images, videos, or text of really terrible things happening to the children,” says Portnoy. “We’re able to use Adobe tools to do some detective work and take kids out of unsafe situations.”
Building a digital platform to stand on
Back in 2017, Adobe consultants participated in a seminar presented by NCMEC executives to gain a deeper understanding of the nonprofit’s complex organization. “Adobe approached us to redesign our website using Adobe Experience Manager,” said DeLaune. Previously, NCMEC was using homegrown, non-enterprise technologies to manage their digital assets and to share new evidence with their audiences.
With Adobe’s help, NCMEC adopted responsive technologies and took a mobile-first approach to their digital strategies and experiences. All case information, including forms and images from the forensic imaging specialists, was uploaded and centrally managed on Adobe Experience Manager Assets Managed Services hosted on Microsoft Azure. This secure, cloud-based technology meets the security requirements associated with open criminal cases involving children.
Having limited expertise on staff, Adobe Professional Services helped NCMEC track, measure, and manage project success, and provided strategic direction on the project’s scope and next steps. Adobe experts also helped to build the nonprofit’s confidence in the new platform and encourage adoption. “With Adobe as a partner, and leveraging cross-cloud technologies, we feel like the sky’s the limit with what we can achieve,” said DeLaune.
“With Adobe as a partner, and leveraging cross-cloud technologies, we feel like the sky’s the limit with what we can achieve.”
President and CEO, NCMEC
Louder and prouder
Despite major digital upgrades, NCMEC recently wanted to make sure their efforts and resources were reaching as many people as possible. “We had a very good looking and functional brand, but people still didn’t know about us,” says Portnoy. The answer, they decided, was to rebrand.
“Our new messaging is ‘Every child deserves a safe childhood,’” says DeLaune. “It’s a clearer, more articulate way of expressing our relevance to the public and informing them that we are an organization that serves certainly missing and exploited children and their families, but that we are much larger organization that has much more to offer to the public than they might necessarily realize.”
According to Portnoy, “We’re now just louder and prouder about the work that we do.”
With the rebrand, NCMEC’s website has come a long way toward being an inviting place for the public. Information about NCMEC’s different programs previously lived on different websites. Now, it’s all integrated under one unified Experience Manager platform. The search page, which is the most trafficked part of NCMEC’s site, now has a missing children function that automatically geolocates based on the user’s location. NCMEC has also made the site 90% accessible to people who are visually impaired and can be accessed completely in both English and Spanish.
“Because of the increased usability of the site as a whole, people are spending more time on it,” says Portnoy. “Before, they would search for a missing case or a specific resource, but now they’re spending more time on the site once they’re there.” While visitors previously spent up to a minute on the site, they’re now spending anywhere from three to five minutes exploring resources and other cases. Bounce rates on the site are also next to nonexistent, with an average of just 1%. This is a steady improvement from the 7% bounce rate from just a few years ago, and 97% rate before Adobe approached NCMEC to redesign their website in 2017.
Another major upgrade to the site is the integration of Adobe Analytics. With help from Adobe experts on the implementation, NCMEC can now track behaviors and A/B test across social, email, and the website to see if a specific message resonates. “We’re able to track messages that are landing in a positive action,” says Portnoy. “We’re able to see what’s working to get people to the site and click on the big yellow donate button at the top of our pages.” Online giving has continued to grow as part of the new site, with a 110% increase in donation traffic over three years.
NCMEC’s website reach is staggering. Since unifying the site, overall traffic is up by over 7 million, with roughly 12 million visits to the site in 2021 and well over 18 million visits in 2022. This is all to say that more cases of missing and exploited children are being seen, and more resources are being used to keep children safe.
Protecting the future
As the leading child protection agency in the United States, NCMEC does more than help with cases of missing and exploited children. Being loud and proud about the work they do also means bringing prevention resources to the public. Specifically, their NetSmartz digital program aims to improve young people’s internet safety awareness, prevent victimization, and increase online self-confidence through quizzes, music, videos, and animations.
“The program entertains young people while also educating them through internet safety presentations geared to their grade level,” says DeLaune. “By providing kids with age-appropriate videos and games, we hope to teach them how to make safe decisions both on and offline.” NCMEC also provides resources for parents. For example, if a kid posts an inappropriate photo online, parents can get information on how to take it down safely.
To make these resources, NCMEC uses Adobe Creative Cloud apps to design, produce, and distribute these educational materials. Cartoon characters are animated in Adobe Animate, Adobe Character Animator, and Adobe After Effects, and video editors cut and organize the scenes in Premiere Pro.
When NCMEC is alerted to an unsafe trend from their CyberTipline, they can create a visual resource for it and publish it to the site as quickly as the next day. Because all NCMEC’s webpages are unified on Experience Manager Sites, their staff can publish the content themselves instead of needing to contract out to external developer resources.
“We’re able to see a huge uptick in people actually getting to our resources,” says Portnoy. “For example, we have a lesson that says if somebody’s trying to take you, just make noise, get away, and get to a trusted adult. We have countless stories where kids were able to use lessons like that to get out of unsafe situations.”
Evolving with technology
NCMEC has come a long way with their digital presence. But they are always looking for new ways to spread their message of prevention and hopefully bring kids home — like featuring photos of missing children on gas station televisions. “We continue to evolve as the threats evolve,” says DeLaune. “Certainly, technology has facilitated the exploitation of children, but technology has also remarkably changed our reach and amplified our ability to communicate with the public.”
For example, Portnoy is excited about how artificial intelligence will influence the way NCMEC processes cases and uses data to get more specific information out to the public. “The ability to take a piece of content and meet people where they are quickly is a very manual process for us. I have a dream where we publish a poster to the site and it automatically gets pushed to a local bus station,” says Portnoy. “We’re looking to Adobe to help us automate this.”
He’s also planning to make user experiences on the website more scalable. “In the future, our website will be different for an educator versus someone who is experiencing a traumatic event. That’s something experiential that we’re very much looking forward to.”
More personalized outreach means a greater chance for more people to be reunited with their lost loved ones, like Steve Carter from Hawaii.
Soon after finding his image on missingkids.org, Carter contacted the Honolulu Police Department, and later, a DNA test confirmed his identity — he was the missing child Marx Panama. Carter decided to contact his newfound relatives over the phone. First, he reached his father, Mark Barnes, whose girlfriend had gone to the store with their six-month-old son on June 21, 1977 and never returned. When he heard his son’s voice for the first time, Barnes was speechless.
“All I could say was, ‘Wow. Oh, wow. Wow.’”
For DeLaune, the job is never over. “We never stop looking for a missing child. It’s our job to make sure we get the right information in front of the right eyes to help these families bring their children home.”