© 2023 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Age Progression Photo Seeks to Find Woman Missing 50 Years

National Missing Children's Day is this Sunday. Each year Ohio law enforcement receives thousands of reports about missing young people. One of the tools experts are using is a technique called age progression' - it's an artist's rendering that represents the appearance of a child as he or she ages. Recently Central Ohio residents received a missing person notice that uses the technique.

"What do you think the chances of actually be found by age progression?"

"I would think that there is a good chance. You know, the right people have to see it and the media plays a big part in that also the website and also advertising flyers."

Steven Loftin, a forensic artist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says the center's website gets 2 million hits a day. The center has aged progressed 4,000 missing children and Loftin says 800 of those have been found.

Some missing children are recovered quickly. But some cases are more difficult to solve - especially when a child has been missing for years or even decades. Since 1990 the center has been distributing photographs of children as they might appear today whether they'd be 15 or 50. Loftin says the age progression process involves more art than science.

"It's a manual process using Adobe Photoshop. And with the stretching of the image to approximate cranial and facial growth and the cutting and the pasting you have to be able to airbrush and to have an artist's point of view," Loftin says. "In other words be comfortable with being able to artistically portray the face would be the number one criteria for this job. The only science we incorporate is growth. You have to be knowledgeable of human growth patterns."

A child must be missing for at least two years before Loftin and his colleagues begin to alter images as they might appear today. Successful progression he says depends in part on access to family photographs.

"The process we use is based on heredity. We'd like to get photos of the biological parents at the current age of the missing child; those would be ideal but we don't always get those photographs. And since it is more art than science it's very subjective and that's why we need the biological family to be able to predict what a child would look like at a particular age."

The artists at the Missing and Exploited Children's center say they can work with just about any photo. But working with an infant's picture is much more difficult because facial features are not yet well developed. But the center's Bob O'Brien says that in one of a very few instances, progressing an infant's image was a success. O'Brien says that as a boy, Eric Austin was told by his father that his mother was killed by a volcano in the Philippines.

"The only photo we ever had was an infant photo. But we did have photos of the mother whose child was abducted. We had photos of her other children. We were able to do a composite of what this child may look like at age 19 and we did put that up on our website and an investigator in California who was looking at another crime thought that this drawing looked a lot like the man she had just interviewed and we were able to unify the mother and her son."

Loftin says the center has a much greater chance finding children who've only been missing 5 years than those who've been missing 30. There's also no way to know how important age progression really is. But one thing is sure - the photographs capture peoples' attention. Brent Currence directs the Missing Children's Clearinghouse in the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

"That picture says a thousand words. I can post something describing a child but if you see an actual photo it's key to resolving cases."