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A Missing Child, a Leadership Journey

Ernie Allen
Ernie Allen is president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.

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.

By Ernie Allen

 |  August 14, 2009; 1:52 PM ET |  Category:  Personal Leadership Journey Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Many years ago, I worked at the NCMEC, and I saw first hand the extraordinary work that this organization does. There is nothing like the panic/fear/horror that is experienced when a child is abducted (even if by the other parent) and nothing like the joy that is experienced when a child is found. Ernie Allen is a good man, and has led this organization to success. He is a good example of what a leader in this country should be, especially nowadays. How many people nowadays are willing to lead without getting credit and fame for it? Not many. Also, to the poster who mocked the parents who lost a child - if you have never been through it - and I have fairly recently - you don't know what will get you through that unimaginable pain. Sometimes helping others is the only way through. Just a thought - I wouldn't judge till you have walked in another's shoes.

Posted by: nooch23 | August 25, 2009 12:05 AM

The NCMEC supports the Walsh Act because there is millions of dollars at stake for them, and all that money has clouded their better judgment. Allen's salary is fully dependent on the money the NCMEC generates, and in 2007 he raked in just under a million in benefits. So it is no surprise Allen, still heavily influenced by John Walsh, still consistently lies before Congress, like he did during March's SORNA hearings. Their own studies have disproved many of their own practices and beliefs over the years, the same beliefs they hold fast to.

I ask you, the reader, how many of you know just what the Walsh Act calls for? Here's a link for you to read it yourself:


Posted by: iamthefallen1 | August 24, 2009 8:15 PM

"While intentions initially were quite noble and pure, Mr. Allen and Mr. Walsh now profit handsomely from the business of missing and exploited children."

yes, they do.


how many more children could be found or saved if his salary was 250K.. still more than 97% of earn.

I support charities, but to classified as a charity perhaps we should limit the pay and bene's to a reasonalbe amount.

and actually let the money work for the charities

Posted by: newagent99 | August 24, 2009 6:31 PM

So very Sad Ernie. I saw you at the AWA hearings in March. NCMEC started out as a very noble and needed organization that has Morphed into the frankenstein of professional victimhood it is today.

You recieve MILLIONS in federal dollars please do not lie to the readers and claim your a charity.

You have changed NCMEC from an actual child avocate organization to a self serving cash machine where lies and half truths rule.

John Walsh admitted he was a former "sex addict" on Larry king years ago yet your political organization pads it's accounts with Junk science and federal payola useing the sex offender card?

The day's of not being called on your lies and half truths are over my friend.

Posted by: SheepleHerder | August 24, 2009 6:02 PM

To those of you who are commenting on salaries and insinuate that a high salary is not justified: I feel that being an advocate for and saving even one child is worth more than the hundreds of multi-million dollar salaries paid to the financial company CEOs.

Posted by: laelyn | August 24, 2009 5:02 PM

There is so much good to be said of the work of the Center and the leadership of Mr. Allen, that it is ridiculous and insulting to bring salary into this. The Center's public records show that Mr. Allen is not being paid the amount stated here and that his salary is a mere 1% of the Center's total revenue. His compensation is far lower than comparative CEOs who have far less at stake. Mr. Allen, thank you for your efforts.

Posted by: msmccomis | August 24, 2009 4:56 PM

Thanks for all the years of dedicated work
in Louisville following in the footsteps of your mother.
You have been a role model from your days at Saint William, a delightful musician and
kind man.
You have helped create a compassionate way to deal with a national problem.
There are few people in your class.
Twenty five years of concern for children
is fantastic.
So proud of you,
Pat Palma

Posted by: nettie1 | August 24, 2009 3:50 PM

fr larry1000:

>...While intentions initially were quite noble and pure, Mr. Allen and Mr. Walsh now profit handsomely from the business of missing and exploited children....

I have ALWAYS thought Walsh to be somewhat self-promoting and sleazy. He's somewhat like Mark Klaas, whose daughter was abducted and murdered. You see him EVERYWHERE when a child comes up missing, but never his wife.

I have immense sympathy for their families, but they need to ease off on the sleaze factor.

Posted by: Alex511 | August 24, 2009 3:06 PM

NCMEC does nothing for children molested by a parent, which is a large percentage of molestations. Also, most of the "missing children" are "abducted" BY THEIR PARENT.

If a father molests his child and the mother cannot get the courts to intervene, often the mother will leave with the child "illegally". The father knows he can call NCMEC and they will do his bidding by bringing his victim back to him. This has happened before and will happen again under Ernie Allen's "leadership".

Posted by: Kaufmann_RDW | August 24, 2009 2:39 PM

Something like %5 of the money congress gives NCMEC goes directly to Ernie Allen's salary.

Posted by: Kaufmann_RDW | August 24, 2009 2:34 PM

Deadskin - lesson learned, "lead by walking beside."

I disagree that we've been indoctrinated to be afraid all the time - I am vigilant, though. I know that the person I least suspect would be seeking to harm my child is the one who will be the most likely to do it. Ask any of the parents whose children have been abducted by strangers if they don't wish they'd been paying closer attention.

I was molested as a child in the early 80's, and if it had happened today I think my parents would've been much more attuned to what was going on. They would've known to ask questions when my personality changed, like I am today. Education is not a bad thing.

Posted by: mkuhnell | August 24, 2009 2:13 PM

Who are those emailers socali, larry1000 and deadskin? These people are so full of hate they must have come from a town hall meeting. I know they turned on Fox this morning got all pumped up to go on some witch hunt and happened across this article. Does it really matter how much money either one of these guys make? We should be looking at their intent which is hard to determine but the results are great. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: jerseydevil | August 24, 2009 1:18 PM

You should mostly be ashamed of yourself. You and Walsh have vastly enriched yourselves and probably done as much or more to exacerbate the problem as alleviate it. Have you ever stopped to consider en route to the bank what indoctrinating children and familes with "be afraid, be very afraid, be very afraid all the time" has done to the fabric of our society.

You are a sick and perverse man. By the way who did the make up (they must have put it on with a spatula) for your photo, some drag queen?

Posted by: SoCali | August 24, 2009 12:59 PM

ok so maybe i read through it too fast but the text on the homepage said something about how he learned a valuable lesson along the way over his 25 years...but what is the lesson???

Posted by: deadskin | August 24, 2009 12:53 PM

While intentions initially were quite noble and pure, Mr. Allen and Mr. Walsh now profit handsomely from the business of missing and exploited children.

They have single-handedly created a mild hysteria in this country, using facts that are molded and "spun" to serve their own interests.

Factually, a vast majority of child abductions are parental abductions.
According to every objective study, the incidence of true abduction and/or kidnapping are much more rare than these men or their organization would lead you to believe.

Of course, even a single child being abducted or harmed is horrific. And government or non-profit resources well-deserve to be used in prevention and recovery of children.

However, Mr. Allen and Mr. Walsh both use the horror involved, exaggerating and spinning all the while, to earn very handsome personal profits.

Posted by: Larry1000 | August 24, 2009 12:19 PM

I turned 16 years old in July 1981, just before Adam Walsh was taken. I was from the same oceanside town--Hollywood, Florida--and worked in the mall where Adam was abducted. This was prior to advent of cable news (CNN was in its infancy), but those of us in Hollywood followed the Walsh story on local news, we posted copies of missing fliers and prayed for a positive outcome. We grieved with John and Reve Walsh when we learned Adam's fate. And we learned how inept that local law enforcement was in handling this case (Adam was abducted across the street from the Hollywood Police Department, which recently closed the case and apologized for how it was handled). As I now work on criminal justice poliy issues, I see so well how John Walsh's advocacy on behalf of children and the establishment of the NCMEC have put these issues front and center. Laws are on the books to protect victims rather than violent criminals. Parents are more aware of safety issues. And I'm certain lives have been saved as a result.

Posted by: pepperjade | August 24, 2009 11:47 AM

Thanks to Mr. Allen and Reve and John Walsh for everything they do for kids and families!

Posted by: BeavisfromMontana | August 24, 2009 11:43 AM

Mr. Ernie Allen is worth every penny of $800,000 a year if he gets results like this. Thank the Lord for his work...what price do you put on the life of a child?

Posted by: pricehill1984 | August 24, 2009 11:02 AM

Thanks Mr.Allen and everyone at the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. You have all taken on a huge responsability in helping to protect and save our children. I know I could'nt put a price on my childs head. All the coordinated efforts by all of the people working together is making a real difference for our children. I am so glad to know that our police departments and FBI are working together with us to help make the miracle of finding a missing child or getting an exploited child out of a dangerous situation happen everyday. Children are by nature innocent and trusting. Everytime I see or hear of someone violating this my heart gets heavy. The victims are left to deal with the aftermath of someone elses messed up head. I truly hope I will live to see a day when all children are safe. Till then there is your charitable organization helping to bring them back to us.

Posted by: amdesco1 | August 24, 2009 10:58 AM


I helped found an organization last year - the Foundation for Alcoholism Research - it is going well - slowly $$$ wise - but well. Hearing of your journey is another inspiration for me.

Thank you

Posted by: pegwc1 | August 24, 2009 10:46 AM

I believe that a majority of children "taken" are family abductions (e.g., non-custodial parents).

Posted by: CW29 | August 24, 2009 10:42 AM

Thank you so much for what you do, Mr. Allen! I had no idea the impact your organization had made until I read your sobering statistics: 138,500 children recovered?! I am shocked that many children have been taken.

As a new parent, my worst fear is that someone would take or harm my child. Thank you so much for dedicating your life to making a real difference in protecting children and families. In my opinion, you are a hero. And whatever your salary is, it isn't high enough!

Posted by: hillmannic | August 24, 2009 10:12 AM

RDW: What's your point? Most CEOs at the larger non-profits and trade associations in D.C. clear $750,000 or more per year. If Ernie Allen wasn't doing this work, would you be? And if you were, would you do it for free? I'd rather individuals like Allen made $800,000/year finding missing children and ending their explotation than paying CEOs of investment firms $15 million/year and giving them golden parachutes when they send a company tits up and leave taxpayers and employees high and dry. Keep it in perspective, please!

Posted by: painterly_gal | August 24, 2009 7:48 AM

Ernie Allen's salary is supposedly over $800,000 a year.

Posted by: Kaufmann_RDW | August 24, 2009 12:40 AM

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