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State Police Turn To Social Media To Find Missing Children

Carroll County Times

WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) -- The Maryland State Police has found a modern technique it utilizes when looking for missing children.

On average, between 10,000 and 12,000 children are reported missing throughout the state each year.

The biggest obstacle law enforcement faces in locating these children is disseminating the information to the public quickly, according to Carla Proudfoot, director of the Maryland Center for Missing and Unidentified Persons.

"Nowadays, everybody's on the Internet," Proudfoot said. "And it's a great resource."

The specialized unit of the Maryland State Police has turned to social media in getting information into the public's hands, and operates Facebook and Twitter pages as an outreach tactic.

One in every three missing children is located because someone has seen and recognized their photograph, according to police.

The missing and unidentified persons unit is part of the state police computer crimes unit. The unit's job is strictly to get out the information on the missing subjects. The child recovery unit is then tasked with recovering the missing people.

The unit began a big social media push in 2012, Proudfoot said.

While they don't know how many missing person cases are solved directly because of social media efforts, they do know it plays a pivotal role.

"We are aware the information is getting out there more than it was before only because we have this feedback and we can see how many images of this particular missing child were shared or liked, and how many followers we have on our page and that kind of thing," Proudfoot said.

The Facebook page features missing persons cases requested by a state, county or municipal police department. It also has cases submitted by parents or guardians of a missing person.

The page has more than 3,500 "likes" and is filled with photographs of missing children.

In 2012, the Child Recovery Unit closed or located 78 of the 79 missing persons cases referred to the unit, according to Sgt. Deborah Flory.

In 2011, the unit safely located 84 of the 86 missing persons cases reported.

Lt. John Wilhelm, commander of the computer crimes section of the Maryland State Police, said the social media accounts are a force multiplier in getting the word out about missing persons.

"This is the age that we live in, everyone's got the smartphone app for Facebook, that's how everyone communicates now is by some sort of text message or some sort of digital medium, and we're just trying to take advantage of that," Wilhelm said.

The Facebook page also has posts on cold cases, Amber and silver alerts and information on attempted child abductions.

"In this electronic age now we can create a poster for a missing child and instantly it'll go out to (the) people that are following us on the Facebook account," Wilhelm said.

The page garners around 150,000 page views each week.

"It's just phenomenal the way that they get shared across Facebook," Proudfoot said.

The accounts are maintained daily and have helped alleviate difficulties the center has faced in trying to get information on missing children out to the public, Proudfoot said.

Last month, the Facebook page played a role in locating multiple missing persons, including a 14-year-old missing girl from Frederick County and a Baltimore mother and her three children.

"That's why the information is out there, we want to as quickly as possible recover these missing individuals safely," Proudfoot said.

The Twitter handle is used strictly for child abductions for which an Amber Alert has been activated. It is used less frequently than the Facebook account.

An Amber Alert usually contains information about the vehicle the child may have been abducted in.

The state police are asking all Facebook and Twitter users to like and follow their respective pages to help this effort.

"The more eyes that are out in the state looking for the children who have been abducted or just missing, the better chances we have of getting that child home safely," Wilhelm said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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