Saving children’s lives, one image at a time.
How the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children partners with Adobe to help find missing and at-risk kids Watch now
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“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”
Senior VP and COO, NCMEC
One evening in 2011, 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-blond hair.
“I got chills,” he told People in 2012. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, it’s me.’”
Carter had known that he was adopted at age 4 from an orphanage in Honolulu, Hawaii, but 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.
“Good things do happen,” he said.
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. Over the years, NCMEC has used the software to age-progress more than 6,800 images of long-term missing children and created more than 550 facial reconstructions of deceased children. This work has aided the recovery of more than 3,000 lost children between 2015 and 2019 alone, including 191 that had been missing for 10 years or more. It has also assisted in identifying 154 deceased children, providing much-needed closure to grieving families.
“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,” said Michelle DeLaune, Senior VP and COO of 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.”
The NCMEC forensic team also helps identify current victims of exploitation and their captors in photos and video footage, using Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe Audition. “We review more than two million images and videos of child sexual exploitation every month,” says DeLaune, who is in her 21st year at NCMEC. “Adobe Creative Cloud apps play 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.”
One recent case involved an image of two very young victims — one was holding a prescription pill bottle. However, the name and address on the bottle were blurry and impossible to read. Using a new Photoshop filter in beta, the team was able to perform what was once the stuff of science fiction or movie magic, sharpening the label to identify the prescription holder, leading to the apprehension of the offender.
Given the urgency of its mission, NCMEC embraces all available digital channels and tools to identify missing or exploited children, spread awareness with the public, and raise money. Adobe has proudly donated to NCMEC software solutions for many mission-critical activities, and since 2007, has added technical expertise that goes far beyond image manipulation.
The power of data
In 2017, Adobe consultants participated in a seminar presented by NCMEC executives to gain a deeper understanding of the non-profit’s complex business. This meeting uncovered additional opportunities for Adobe to support the organization’s mission. “Adobe approached us to redesign our website using Adobe Experience Manager,” recalled DeLaune. Previously, NCMEC was using home-grown, non-enterprise technologies to manage their digital assets and to share new evidence with their audiences. These digital assets — pictures of missing children and related evidence — were not managed optimally, relying heavily on manual processes that could not scale well, especially as the database grew.
NCMEC’s audiences are diverse — including individuals, government agencies, commercial interests, impacted families, and media. With a limited digital strategy and solutions, NCMEC had difficulty delivering the right experience to the right audiences at the right time. And the more people that see a missing child’s photograph, the higher the chances of a happy ending like Steve Carter’s. NCMEC had previously focused on desktop experiences to engage with audiences, yet digital trends indicated that their target audience uses mobile devices as their primary screen. Remember, Steve Carter was using his iPad when he ‘found himself.’
“By taking advantage of every digital channel available, we can communicate messages about missing and exploited children on a much wider scale,” says Gavin Portnoy, Vice President of Strategic Advancement & Partnerships at NCMEC. “With years of expertise in digital solutions, Adobe is an ideal partner to help us work more effectively across digital mediums to keep children safe.”
With Adobe’s help, NCMEC shifted its approach, adopted responsive technologies, and took a mobile-first approach to their digital strategies and experiences. NCMEC also used secure, cloud-based technologies to meet the security requirements associated with sensitive material.
NCMEC uses these Adobe products.
Adobe Experience Manager
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Creative Cloud for Enterprise
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The dream team
The first 48 hours after a child has gone missing are the most critical for a case, so NCMEC needed to adopt asset and site management solutions to help deliver information to multiple screens faster. Today, all case information, including forms and images from the forensic imaging specialists, are uploaded and centrally managed on Adobe Experience Manager Assets Managed Services hosted on Microsoft Azure. “It’s important that we can update the website with any new images and information that we receive quickly to maximize our chance to find a missing child,” says Portnoy. “Adobe Experience Manager gives us the agility we need, while leveraging Microsoft Azure enhances data security. Taking advantage of the Adobe and Microsoft partnership was a no brainer.”
In 2017 NCMEC implemented Adobe Experience Cloud, including Adobe Experience Manager Managed Services, hosted on Microsoft Azure and integrated with third-party analytics. Using this new platform, NCMEC now has greater visibility into website traffic, navigation, donations, and engagement, to improve the reach and impact of its information. Meanwhile, the organization is delivering better experiences across all channels and devices for NCMEC’s various audiences.
NCMEC also wanted to learn more about what layouts, content, and information best resonate with audiences across different screens to shape their digital strategies. By presenting information optimally, the non-profit saw an opportunity to boost engagement and expand its reach, increase clicks and time spent on site.
NCMEC worked with Adobe Customer Solutions to establish success metrics and tracking. With Adobe consultants on hand, NCMEC built their new site using Adobe Experience Manager and performance-tested it in the Adobe Customer Solutions Performance Test Lab. This process helped Adobe and NCMEC refine the experience, improve response time, define workloads, and identify performance bottlenecks early on.
Adobe Customer Solutions helped NCMEC track, measure, and manage project success, and provided strategic direction on the project’s scope and next steps. Being embedded within the NCMEC team, Adobe Customer Solutions also helped build the non-profit’s confidence in the new platform and encourage adoption amongst staff. “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.”
Senior VP and COO, NCMEC
“Working with Adobe Customer Solutions, we had an all-in partner that was fully invested in our success,” says Portnoy. “We worked with them to take a hard look at all phases of our workflows and digital experiences, from start to finish, to improve virtually every aspect of each audience’s experience.”
Alongside a new fluid website design that features updated branding and user experiences, Adobe Customer Solutions also helped NCMEC implement new functionality as the organization matured, such as audience segmentation and persona-driven customer experiences. “One of the areas that we're looking forward to exploring is Sensei, to be able to compare these massive numbers of images through Adobe’s AI capabilities to gain insights that we don't currently have,” said Gavin Portnoy.
How digital documents support time-critical operations
Every moment NCMEC saves in their daily operations gives them more time to devote to their mission. But over three decades after their founding, some parts of the organization were still overly relying on old document processes that slowed them down. “We had a lot of paper. A lot of paper,” says Portnoy.
The move to Adobe Acrobat was an important step forward. Having been a paper-oriented organization since 1984, many departments within NCMEC were still printing, scanning, faxing, and filing hard copies of documents. Coupled with the storage and maintenance of paper files, the old way of handling documents simply wasn’t serving the organization any longer. These slow paper process lead to delays—a critical drawback for an organization that strives to help children and their families as quickly as possible.
With Acrobat, NCMEC could easily and confidently share important files with internal and external stakeholders in a common format. And because PDFs are compliant with the Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the organization could now make their documents accessible to people of diverse abilities.
Staff who work on educational content for children or help create materials for law enforcement trainings also use Acrobat to streamline their review process. It’s easy for the team to package content into PDF files and distribute to internal stakeholders for review. The creative team no longer needs to wait for printouts to make their way through the inter-office mail system. With Acrobat, stakeholders can quickly add comments, suggest changes, and return assets to the creative team. Seamless collaboration helps NCMEC create content — and get their message out — faster.
To keep up the momentum they’d achieved with Acrobat, NCMEC also implemented Adobe Acrobat Sign. On a weekly basis, NCMEC has a wide variety of documents that need legal signatures, like contracts and HR paperwork. The organization was using a mix of e-signature software and traditional ink signatures. Moving to Adobe Acrobat Sign smoothed out all the bumps in their previous workflow, making it quicker and easier to get the signatures they needed. Built-in features, such as encoding and audit trails, also make the electronic signature process very safe and secure.
But the most critical use case for Adobe Acrobat Sign at NCMEC is media release forms for missing children. When a child goes missing, time is of the essence. NCMEC needs immediate approval from parents or guardians to start distributing a child’s image and personal details through posters, social media, billboards, and media outlets. At the same time, parents clearly have more on their mind than logging on to their computer, printing out a paper release form, and finding a scanner to send the signed release back to NCMEC. With Adobe Acrobat Sign, parents or guardians can quickly read, sign, and return the release in minutes, even from their smartphone. Not only does this reduce the burden on parents during a highly stressful time, but it also speeds up the receipt of release forms, which allows NCMEC to move even faster.
Protecting the future
Educational materials are a vital part of NCMEC’s strategy to keep children safe. With Adobe Creative Cloud, NCMEC designs and produces compelling visuals to help spread their message. Using Adobe Animate, Adobe Character Animator, and Adobe After Effects, the NCMEC team can create and animate cartoons that appeal to their audience and tell an important story. And because they already use Adobe Experience Manager, it’s easy to take the finished materials and distribute them to audiences across each of their channels. “Our prevention programs are based on real situations, but by presenting lessons in a fun, age-appropriate way, we can help children learn to stay safe,” says DeLaune.
“We are in the business of helping save lives. We want to find missing kids, stop exploitation, and promote prevention so it doesn’t happen in the first place,” said Portnoy. In 2019, NCMEC re-launched their NetSmartz program to teach children about online safety, cyberbullying, and personal safety. Using quizzes, music, videos, and animations made with help from Adobe Creative Cloud, the program is bringing child safety into the digital age.
In 1999, Sara Eghbal-Brin, 3, is abducted from her mother at knife point in France. Three years later, French authorities contact NCMEC, believing the girl is in North America.
Graphic artists use Adobe solutions to create ‘age-progressed’ images of the missing girl, now 7. It’s “half art and half science,” says NCMEC.
In February 2002, Canadian Police pull over a car and recognize the little girl in back seat. It’s Sara. “This is the end of a nightmare,” says Ms. Brin. “It’s happiness, it’s a dream.”
Never giving up on hope
According to Portnoy, Adobe provided change that was instant, not incremental. “It’s been transformative” he said. “We’re serving a number of different types of users and a variety of output devices, including mobile cell phones, which we didn’t do well in the past. And we want to be able to have mechanisms to maximize our fundraising efforts, and to be able to apply analytics. Adobe Experience Manager does all of those things at a very high level.”
“Prior to having Adobe we had about an 80% bounce rate. The bounce rate of the new site is 20%. So that tells me that we did something right. This is very good for us,” said Portnoy. “At the end of the day, every single person here can hold their head high and say that they’ve truly made a difference in this world.”
Overall, NCMEC also boosted online engagement, with 90% of website visitors clicking on content. With Adobe Experience Manager, NCMEC increased total website page views by 47.9% in the first three months. Meanwhile, enhanced fundraising efforts drove 218% more traffic to donation and fundraising pages on missingkids.org. More funds and more traffic 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.”
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