A Missing Child, a Leadership Journey
Lao Tzu said, "To lead people, walk beside them." I have tried to live up to this standard through my unexpected leadership journey as president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Twenty-five years ago, I was in public life in my native Louisville, Kentucky. It was not my aspiration to lead a national organization or even to leave Louisville. Yet following the tragic abductions of Etan Patz in New York, Adam Walsh in Florida, and twenty-nine children in Atlanta, I felt I had to do something.
At that time, police could enter information into the FBI's national crime computer about stolen cars, stolen guns, even stolen horses - but not stolen children. They had mandatory waiting periods before they would even take a report of a missing child. I felt our national laws and systems were inadequate and that children were suffering. I wanted to bring attention to these issues so policy makers would respond.
in response to this crisis, I helped create a local exploited and missing child unit, a police-social work team that achieved success and attracted media attention. The U.S. Department of Justice invited me and the head of our unit to Atlanta to consult on the child-murders investigation. While there, I argued that the Atlanta tragedies were not unique and that children were being victimized in many communities. Somehow, America had missed it.
I proposed a summit to bring experts together to develop a national strategy. We convened it in Louisville in 1981. From that meeting of congressional leaders, victim families, law-enforcement leaders, researchers and others, came two recommendations: enacting a federal Missing Children's Act, which was signed into law in 1982, and creating a national resource center on missing and exploited children.
When NCMEC was born in 1984, I was a co-founder and the first chairman, joining Adam's father, John Walsh, and three others on the founding board. My intent was to help mobilize an effort that others would lead. In 1985 we hired a former corporate CEO as our first president. Three years later, he retired from the position. NCMEC faced daunting challenges, and John Walsh and the board asked me to become CEO. Reluctantly, I agreed but only committed to five years. It is now more than 20 years later.
Through the NCMEC, we set out to build a coordinated national response to the problem of missing and exploited children, mobilizing law enforcement and helping searching families. Yet, NCMEC is a charity, not a government agency. How could we coordinate the efforts of 18,000 police departments, prosecutors, social service professionals, and policy makers, plus thousands of searching parents and millions of families? We had to establish trust and credibility with this huge constituency, while creating a sustainable charitable organization.
I remember a conversation I had with a group of police executives. One said, "If we have to ask you for help, it will make us look bad. You will get the media attention, and it will appear that we don't know what we are doing." I responded that our sole purpose was to help them recover the child. They would get the credit. No one would have to know that we were involved. Working quietly behind the scenes is not the typical prescription for fund-raising success and survival, yet, it was a price I was willing to pay. Our bottom line was measured in human lives.
Even today, we maintain that approach. Our goal is to be a resource for law enforcement, provide technology and other assistance so that they will be successful. My philosophy is to lead but lead quietly. My credo is that there is no limit to what you can accomplish, as long as you don't care who gets the credit.
Has it worked? Our national, 24-hour, toll-free hotline has handled 2.5 million calls for service. Our CyberTipline has handled 715,000 reports of child sexual exploitation. Our Child Victim Identification Program has analyzed 25 million child pornography images and videos to identify and rescue child victims. Our missing child photo distribution network includes 372 private companies. Our forensic artists have helped recover 900 long-term missing children through "age progressions," images of what the child looks like today. We have trained 253,000 police and prosecutors. We are the only charity with online access to the FBI's NCIC databases, with agents from the FBI, Marshal's Service and others assigned to our headquarters. And we have assisted law enforcement in the recovery of 138,500 children, raising the recovery rate from 62% in 1990 to 97% today.
The change from where we were 25 years ago to where we are today is dramatic. While we have much farther to go, I believe the progress America has made in response to the crisis of missing and exploited children is a testimony to the power of leading by walking beside others.
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