Federal law officers tap database to help find missing children

Federal law officers tap database to help find missing children

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children combines five databases and boosts success

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff

Postal inspector Paul Groza has helped solve cases of exploited and missing children since 1978. For the past three years, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children databases have been an invaluable investigative tool.

Groza, four FBI agents and two Oregon state police department law enforcement officials, who banded together about three years ago to fight child exploitation in the Northwest, have used the center's databases extensively in investigations, he said. The Portland, Ore., FBI field office provided office space to the team.

The center provides leads from citizens who submit information to the CyberTipline database. Groza and other investigators from the Postal Service, FBI and Customs Service use the information.

'A lot of people do not pick up the phone to call the FBI or a postal inspector, but they will report it to the center,' Groza said.

'The center is extremely useful because it is absolutely the first line of information we receive,' said Groza, who investigates cases in Oregon and Washington.

'NCMEC does a heck of a great job in helping me get information,' Groza said.

In May, Groza received the 2000 National Exploited Children's Award from the center, Fraternal Order of Police and Office of Juvenile Justice for solving a case.

Information technology has helped the center boost its child recovery rate from 66 percent in 1984 to 91 percent this year, he said.

Private-sector donations and in-house IT expertise have helped streamline the nonprofit organization's data management, officials at the center said.

The center's staff members and law enforcement officials access the database via an intranet using a browser for criminal investigations and prosecutions. Law enforcement officials are assigned user identification numbers and passwords.

Gaining access to the center's resources wasn't always so easy.

Five to one

Congress in 1984 mandated the center's creation. By 1995, the center's five divisions had developed five separate databases. Its hotline operators entered information into a Microsoft FoxPro database. The case management and case analysis divisions also used FoxPro databases. The international division used Microsoft Access. The public affairs division used CA-Clipper from Computer Associates International Inc.

Peg Flick, the center's IT director, personally migrated the information from the stovepipe databases into one common database. Before the data consolidation, 'data had to be typed in over and over again,' said Flick, who first began working at the center as a volunteer.

Flick used DataDirect SequeLink, database middleware donated by Merant Inc. of Rockville, Md., to connect the databases through a single interface while moving the data to a new Ingres 2 database donated by Computer Associates.

Flick used Visual Basic and Microsoft Access to construct customized front-end applications for the five divisions. For example, one program helps generate posters of missing children. Another generates monthly letters to inform parents of the status of investigations.

'For each division, I analyzed what they needed and how to do it,' Flick said. 'We did not want to disturb the work so we did it gradually and had a dual-entry system for three months. The poor hotline operators were working pretty hard.'

By June of last year, Flick had finished the two-year project and had pulled all the data from the standalone databases into the Ingres 2 database.

The database runs under SunSoft Solaris 2.6 on a Sun Microsystems Enterprise 450 server with 300G of RAM at the center's Alexandria, Va., headquarters. Like Computer Associates, Sun Microsystems Inc. donated the four-way server.

In 1997, the center also brought online CyberTipline, the Web app that lets the public report leads about missing and exploited children. The information is stored in another Ingres 2 database running under Solaris 2.6 on a two-way Sun Enterprise 450 server in the Jersey City, N.J., data center of Exodus Communications Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.

A team from the center and Computer Associates created the CyberTipline app, at www.missingkids.com/cybertip, and the main site, at www.missingkids.com.

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