(WRIC) — The numbers are simply staggering. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 347 children are missing here in Virginia.
More than 74 of those kids are right here in Central Virginia. So, what’s being done to find them?
A specialist with the center showed 8News how experts are using a concept known as age progression in hopes of bringing each child home. Employees of the center refer to themselves as ‘ambassadors of hope.’
“We’re probably our own worst critic when we’re looking at these images,” Joe Mullins with the center said. “I’d love to be out of a job.”
Mullins is one of four forensic imaging specialists at the national center in Alexandria. There they digitally alter the physical appearance of a missing child using image editing software to show how they might look years after the child’s disappearance.
“As a forensic artist, I live in a wonderful world where art and science HAVE to get along,” Mullins said. “Those two worlds have come together because we need a forensic anthropologist, we need the medical examiner, the law enforcement aspect of it, but the science has to be there.”
There’s no enhance button that automatically age progresses a child. Instead …
“It’s good old fashioned Adobe Photoshop,” Mullins said. “It’s a manipulation of the images, it’s more technique than technology.”
A child has to be missing for at least two years to be eligible for an age progression, making adjustments every two years up until age 18. Once 18, they’re age progresses every five years.
“Hopefully the child is recovered and they don’t grow up on our computer screen,” Mullins said. “Ideally we want reference pictures of mom and dad at or around the age the child would be today.”
They want to compare facial growth and features, focusing on the parent the child favors.
“It’s a good starting point so we can pick features right from the family tree and apply it on that child’s face,” Mullins said. “It makes a more accurate image.”
As a rule, they don’t use the technique on children under the age of three. The younger the child, the more difficult it is to progress, making the recovery of Aric Austin a remarkable story.
“Doing an age progression on an infant like Aric Austin’s case, where he was one-and-half-months old and we didn’t get the case until 21 years later … There’s not a lot of information in a one-and-a-half year old’s face to do an age progression. But the searching mother supplied all kinds of pictures, exactly what we needed.”
Aric was reunited with his mother at the age of 22. And then there’s Jaycee Dugard, a case that made national headlines. She was kidnapped at age 11 and found at 29.
“These are some of the pictures that Jaycee’s mom supplied,” Mullins said pointing to the photos. “This is mom and this is Jaycee. This is what we need to see to do an age progression. We make an outline of where her features are.”
Like boxing in her eyelids, ears and the corners of her mouth. Now he has an outline that can be used as a grid where they start adding in other features.
“It’s a bit of a different angle, but you can still see enough of the characteristics there,” Mullins said.
Watch 8News reporter Jonathan Costen’s full report above to watch how experts progressed the ages of Dugard and Austin.
Mullins says the next time you see a picture of a missing child …
“Just take five seconds to stare at the face. That face could be the one you see at the grocery store or dropping off your kids. Something may trigger some memories, just take a second and look at that.”
You may even have a piece of information that may help unlock the mystery of a child. The goal of using age progression is to keep these cases alive and remind people these children are still missing.
“It does work,” Mullins said. “We can get these kids home where they belong.”
The center works in conjunction with the FBI and distributes the age progressed images to thousands of police departments and private distributors. Click here to learn more about the children missing here in Central Virginia.