Jan. 13, 2007 -- "RECOVERED," written in bold red letters across the photo of a young Shawn Hornbeck, was a word his family hoped, but was unsure, it would ever see.
The 4'8" brown-haired, brown-eyed boy pictured behind those letters is one of the lucky ones. Four and a half years after that photo was taken, Hornbeck, now a young man, has come home.
Beating the Odds
"MISSING" is the word more commonly printed over the faces of children listed on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Web site. Nearly 800,000 children disappear every year in the United States.
While 99 percent of those children are found, the one percent who are not represent 5,000 to 10,000 children; children who are out there, somewhere, perhaps waiting to be rescued.
The odds were against Hornbeck. Seventy-four percent of missing children in cases like Hornbeck's are killed within the first three hours of abduction. A child rescued after years of captivity is almost unheard of.
"No question that Shawn has beaten the odds" said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). "The longer it goes, the lower the likelihood of finding them safely."
New Technologies Aid in Finding Children
NCMEC played a vital role in locating Hornbeck. Founded 22 years ago, shortly after the Missing Children's Act was passed in 1982, the center has been the most influential advocate for locating missing children. Since 1990, the recovery rate for missing children has climbed from just 62 percent to 96.3 percent today.
Allen attributes that success partly to the development of new technology.
"Simply the ability to transmit images and information instantly across America and the world has revolutionized the search for children," said Allen.
There are also new laws that aid investigators in missing children cases. The most important did away with waiting periods that required children to be missing 24 to 72 hours before being officially declared as "missing."
"The good news is this country is responding more effectively than ever before," said Allen. "There is a national system. Mandatory waiting periods are gone and local authorities are better prepared."
Runaways, lost children and abductions by family members make up the vast majority of the 800,000 cases of missing children each year.
Only 58,000 of those are abductions by non-family members. And of those, only 115 to 120 are "stereotypical kidnappings," defined by the U.S. Justice Department as "a nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger, in which a child is detained … or abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed."
Have You Seen This Child?
Americans may have the impression these abductions are much more common, in part because they see the faces of missing children on everything from billboards to milk cartons.
NCMEC is part of a program that sends flyers to more than 100 million American homes every week. They result in 300 to 400 calls into the center every week, and NCMEC says one out of six children whose faces appear on a flyer are found.
NCMEC's own research found less than half of Americans think that they can recognize a child from a picture on a flyer, but officials there say every little bit counts when trying to find a missing child.
"Every person can play a role," Allen said. "It doesn't cost anything. All they have to do is look at the pictures and pay attention. If you see something, alert authorities."
The actual number of child abductions decreased by 1.5 percent last year. With the recovery rate increasing, families of missing children are holding out hope that their child will be among the lucky ones -- like Hornbeck.
"This is a message of hope for thousands of other searching parents who want to make sure their kids aren't forgotten," said Allen.
Hornbeck's stepfather, Craig Akers, said he never lost hope.
"Miracles do happen," he said. "Things can come to a happy conclusion. Just don't give up the faith. Don't give up and it can happen."
For more information on how to keep your child safe and tips on how to talk to your children about "stranger danger," visit the NCMEC Web site, missingkids.com. If you have any information regarding a missing child, call 1-800-THE-LOST.