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Special Assignment: Every 40 Seconds

Updated: May. 25, 2021 at 10:35 PM CDT
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MERIDIAN, Miss. (WTOK) - May 25 is National Missing Children Awareness Day, as declared by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Every 40 seconds, a child goes missing in the United States. By the end of this story, another five children will be missing somewhere in our country.

Some run away. Some are neglected. But 700,000 children go missing in our country every year. About 300,000 of those children are classified as abducted or missing.

Most of those are taken by a relative - often a non-custodial parent. But 58,000 children are taken by someone they don’t know.

For more than a decade, Dr. Vicki Gier at MSU Meridian has been researching facial recognition. She has studied the effects of recognition, varying things like hair styles and even aging.

“The other thing that has hit me throughout the years is the age that I kept hearing and kept seeing pop up... was 6-7 year olds. It would - and this is the first time I have ever talked about this - it brought back memories. Not so good memories,” Gier said.

Dr. Gier herself was a victim of kidnapping when she was just seven years old.

She was abducted by two teenage boys from a community center in Saint Petersburg, Florida. She says she was bound for hours, but she was able to create an opportunity to escape.

“The only way I got away, and this was by the grace of God, is that I was Catholic. I went to a Catholic school. I had just received my first communion. I just starting talking to him about ‘Jesus is watching you. What you’re doing is wrong.’ And somehow, I guess I guilted him, and I ran,” she said.

She hid in the girl’s bathroom until she was picked up to go home. Her parents returned with her to that community center and talked with her abductor’s parents. Her parents believed her, but their reaction might shock you.

“My parents said ‘never speak of this again. Just forget that it ever happened,’” she said

The effect on her was profound and piercing. She had difficulty trusting other people, and she was uncomfortable as she grew and started getting attention from boys.

She said, “I started eating my pain, and I became very heavy, and I kept that weight on for the majority of my life.”

Today Dr. Gier channels that negative experience in a more positive way - using it to make a difference in the world through her research.

Her goal is to improve the odds of finding missing children, and the results of her research are being used all over the United States and across the Atlantic in England.

“I want to give hope where they may not be hope. and I really want to give parents the knowledge of what to do as soon as they find out that their child cold be missing,” she said.

Her research started when she saw an Amber alert in 2006.

She said, “the child on the Amber alert was the same age as my oldest granddaughter.... they kept saying ‘parents, have a good quality photo like a school photo,’ and it made me cry because if she had been kidnapped and someone had seen her maybe physically or sexually abused... is she going to look like a school photo?”

Her studies have shown that facial recognition increases when the school photos are shown along with others. The other photos should show the child hot and sweaty and messy hair after a day playing outside. Videos can help, too. These are just examples. The important thing is to make sure you have a variety of photos.

“The cell phone that has to have been a life saver for so many because click, click, click, video, video, video, you have it, and there you have it,” she said.

And that’s exactly what she suggests: take photos! Take videos!

“Today parents are so fortunate to be able to have the power to save their child’s life and not even know it,” she said.

Some may question it, and your kids may even be annoyed.

She said, “one person’s life saved is worth it.”

And now this story has ended... and five more children somewhere in our country are missing.

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