Facebook filled with pleas for finding kids

It used to be that if a child went missing, his or her image would be posted on telephone poles, neighborhood gathering places and parking lots.

But now, people are using Facebook — the social-networking website that connects millions through photos and commentary — as a tool in the search for their missing loved ones.

"One of six children is located because someone recognizes them in a photograph," said John Shehan of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Virginia. "But with more than 500 million active users on Facebook, that statistic is greatly enhanced when someone creates a page for a missing child."

Tara Yunker disappeared from her New Smyrna Beach, Fla., home Sept. 3, and Melbourne, Fla., police found her days later after friends launched a Facebook page for the 16-year-old.

Nadia Bloom, the 11-year-old who disappeared into an alligator-infested area of Winter Springs, Fla., in April, also was recovered a few days after her family created a Facebook page for the little girl.

Friends of 16-year-old Kristen Brown set up a Facebook page for the missing Groveland, Fla., girl Sept. 17. It contains pictures of the teen, as well as her description and tips on her whereabouts. Lake County Sheriff's Office deputies said she went missing Sept. 6 and has not been found.

"We look at that information here at the center, but we also know that law enforcement gleans what they can from those pages for their investigations," Shehan said. "If parents are managing the Facebook site, it also gives them comfort that they are actively involved."

Lt. Bob Kelley of the Volusia County, Fla., Sheriff's Office said Facebook is "something we use in our missing-children cases, as well as cybercrimes." The Sheriff's Office handled the Yunker case. "It certainly gives missing cases much more exposure."

The missing-children's center has taken 3,464 active cases of missing children since Jan. 1, 1990.

Officials at Facebook did not return calls from the Orlando Sentinel for this story, so it is unclear how many pages for missing or exploited children are on the site; however, a search for "missing children" shows thousands of hits.

One of the first Facebook pages created for a missing person was in 2007 for Orlando's Jennifer Kesse. She disappeared from her condo near the Mall at Millenia in January 2006 when she was 24.

The case garnered national media attention, and nearly 3,000 Facebook users identify themselves as friends of the "Help Find Missing Jennifer Kesse" page, which contains several pictures and a description of her.

"It absolutely helps," said Drew Kesse, her father. "If we can get another eye to look at that website, then it means another person now knows her face and can help in the search. It's total awareness that reaches a network of millions of people."

The family of Haleigh Cummings, the missing 5-year-old Satsuma, Fla., girl, also created a Facebook page for the child in 2009. Haleigh has not been found, and Putnam County Sheriff's Office investigators think the child is dead.

Jessica Russell, who posts comments on the "Help Find Haleigh Cummings" Facebook page, said she has added pictures of the missing girl to her own page, and her friends have done the same with the hope of finding the child.

"I think that when you have something that is so good at connecting friends who have not seen each other or family who are separated by thousands of miles, why not use it to find missing children?" Russell said.