Public Safety

Mapping Makes an Impact in the Fight to Reduce Child Exploitation

By John Beck

The surreptitious nature of child sex trafficking, with offenders keeping children on the move and crossing jurisdictional lines, makes it difficult to locate and protect children and track down those who exploit them. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) takes a data-centric approach that empowers cross-agency collaboration.

Driven by the core belief that every child deserves a safe childhood, NCMEC staff apply advanced analytics to help find missing children and support law enforcement efforts to hold offenders responsible for their victimization. From its start, NCMEC has taken a geographic approach, using maps to understand the many dimensions of this problem. Recently, NCMEC analysts adopted real-time maps to support operations that bring together multiple law enforcement agencies with the shared goal of recovering missing and exploited children.

Powered by geographic information system (GIS) technology, the center’s Missing and Recovered map and dashboard deliver important details to each investigator, including aggregated data from social media, online ads, and other leads. In the past, NCMEC reports could fill 30 to 40 pages of a PDF for each child, making it difficult to sort and find key details. This new resource has enabled law enforcement to leverage real-time leads and information resulting in successful recoveries of children actively being exploited through child sex trafficking.

“Missing and exploited child operations conducted by law enforcement involve multiple agencies working on a common mission in a shared space engaging in real-time collaboration and deconfliction,” said Melissa Snow, executive director of NCMEC’s Analytical Services Division, Child Sex Trafficking Programs. “The maps provide a comprehensive and concise visual representation, sharing information about the child, indicators of possible victimization, and consolidated information to use as leads in locating them.”

Tracking Down Child Traffickers

The constantly updated dashboards and maps have made a difference. Law enforcement officers can get current actionable data and see progress. Often, the information they need is related to a specific location and public gathering—such as a large convention or sporting event.

“There are a lot of components of movement and geography that can play a role in the crime of child sex trafficking to evade law enforcement,” Snow said. “By mapping the data, we can start to see actively missing kids slowly making their way to a venue. Let’s say an event is happening in a southern state, and you have a kid that is actively being advertised online in a northern state. Over days, we see the geographic location of those online ads move toward that event.”

The national map of missing and recovered children provides context of the scale and pervasiveness of the problem. This tally is constantly in flux and it doesn’t represent every missing child in every state. (Click on the image to see a larger map.)

When a law enforcement agency requests resources from NCMEC, Snow’s team pulls together a dashboard with all the details reported to NCMEC about actively missing children they think might be traveling toward a venue.

The largest category of missing child reports NCMEC receives are children who have run away from child welfare or foster care and who have experienced a disrupted home life.

“Traffickers take advantage of that lack of connection, that lack of love and belonging,” Snow said. “All the things that a young person is searching for becomes a way to target them for trafficking.”

Analytical resources—both manpower and access to tools—can vary widely between law enforcement agencies, but NCMEC fills that gap. Acting as a national clearinghouse, NCMEC have specialized and dedicated analytical teams to support law enforcement efforts to identify and locate missing and exploited children. These specialized analysts bring an expertise on how to identify child sex trafficking occurring online combined with donated access to dozens of analytical resources and tools. These two things allow NCMEC analysts to further develop information into more actionable leads to locate missing children or identify child sex traffickers.

“We can identify and then question why a bunch of kids go missing here and are recovered there,” Snow said. “It helps us better target our questions and then figure out, ‘Is there a trend or pattern here that we need to be looking further into?’”

Fighting Exploitation in Neighborhoods and Online

One in 6 of the more than 25,000 cases of children reported missing to NCMEC in 2022 who had run away were likely victims of child sex trafficking. Though people want to think this isn’t happening in their community, NCMEC tries to dispel that misconception.

“Unfortunately, we know that that child sex trafficking is occurring in every type of community, big and small, rural and urban, including tribal land,” Snow said. “We’ve received reports from every single state and every type of community and territory across the United States.”

Traffickers are using the internet to meet children and then learn about vulnerabilities they can target. Many young people are quick to trust and share personal information online. Traffickers target their victims by portraying themselves with similar likes and dislikes as the child or portraying a lavish lifestyle that may entice them.

“In the pre-internet days, traffickers had to do that one-to-one. They had to create a physical connection and that made them more visible,” Snow said. “With social media they can sit in the comfort and protection of their home…They can be sitting in Washington, DC, and recruiting kids in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, and South Carolina simultaneously.”

In the online recruitment process, traffickers build connections with children in foster care who likely have other friends in the system and take advantage of that to develop a network of children to target. They also use the internet for the advertisement and sale of children.

Extending Expertise on Cases and Vulnerabilities

In the past 39 years NCMEC has assisted law enforcement, families, and child welfare with more than 400,000 cases of missing children. NCMEC also operates the CyberTipline, a global mechanism to report instances of suspected child sexual exploitation. Since its inception in 1998, the CyberTipline has received more than 144 million reports. This data combined with the analytical skills to cultivate it supports NCMEC’s the role as the nation’s clearinghouse and resource center for information about missing and exploited children. NCMEC acts as a pointer-system connecting various agencies, organizations, and companies working on these issues.

“One of the things that we have been absolutely critical on is deconfliction,” Snow said. Our missing child and CyberTipline databases hold millions of pieces of information that we can deconflict against and make connections.”  We routinely get requests from law enforcement to run a name in our system and often there is a hit, a potential missing piece of the puzzle that can lead to identifying an offender or locating a child.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children regularly collaborates with state and federal agencies. In 2022, the FBI coordinated Operation Cross Country with the help of NCMEC, other federal agencies, state and local police, and social services agencies across the country to find and assist victims of human trafficking, particularly child victims. More than 200 victims were recovered during the first two weeks of August. (Click on the image to view a video overview of the effort.)

The missing child map and dashboard include places where children have been previously recovered. Lately, NCMEC’s location analysis has expanded to include known gang involvement in child sex trafficking—a worrying phenomenon. In 2022, NCMEC tracked 400 cases where a child went missing and were being exploited by child sex trafficking and a gang.

During operations, the dashboard view gives NCMEC and law enforcement agencies hope that they can help those who are suffering.

“Everybody can see the 10 missing kids in a specific geographic location on the dashboard, and when those numbers shift to show 8 missing and 2 recovered it’s certainly inspiring,” Snow said. “Every time we see that a child is recovered, we celebrate it. You have to celebrate these moments especially when working on a topic so emotionally challenging.”

But Snow cautions that with every recovery we know it’s just the beginning of the next chapter for that child.

“There’s this expectation that with recovery of a child that everything goes back to normal, whatever normal is,” Snow said. “There are a lot of traumas before, during, and after, and a lot of healing that needs to happen. At NCMEC we’re thankful for all these tech tools and analytical resources, but there’s a whole other chapter that happens after every recovery moment.”


Learn more about how law enforcement agencies use GIS to keep communities safe.

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