JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Regardless of where people’s emotions and attention take them in the case of Summer Wells, one prominent organization won’t give up hope that the little girl from Hawkins County will be found.
“Our foundation is built on hope,” the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) John Bischoff told News Channel 11 on the eve of the one-year mark since Summer was reported missing.
The vice president for the NCMEC’s missing children division spoke candidly about the data on missing and exploited children in the U.S., about what NCMEC does to help families and communities affected, and about the best information sources for people concerned about missing children cases.
Cases such as Summer’s all start out with a blank slate for law enforcement and investigators, Bischoff said.
“They just don’t know where the child is until the pieces of the puzzle start being put together,” Bicschoff said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it’s even after the recovery that we know the sure answer as to what actually happened.”
As Bischoff said, NCMEC always takes the approach of hoping for a happy recovery, with a safe child. The numbers the organization deals with may seem staggering to some.
Since 1984, NCMEC has dealt with 400,000 missing child cases. The group’s website, missingkids.org, currently has more than 7,000 active missing children files.
Bischoff noted that Summer Wells’s case has “taken a lot of turns over the past year.” NCMEC will stay as involved as they do in any case of its nature. The website’s section on “long-term missing” cites a study showing that between 2014 and 2016, 3,147 children were recovered after being missing for six months or longer and 151 were recovered after having been missing a decade or longer.
NCMEC defines long-term missing children cases as “those in which all viable leads have been thoroughly investigated” with no recovery. The long-term missing page states that long-term cases are no less important to families, law enforcement or the center.
One service NCMEC provides is professional age progression images. Bischoff said those begin only at the point a child has been missing for at least two years, which is when he said such tools become valuable in investigations.
“We do have a team here at the National Center …. of forensic imaging artists who every two years will age progress a photo if the child is under the age of 18,” Bischoff said. “Obviously, we’re just at the one-year anniversary and we’re not near doing that for Summer’s photo just yet.”
Bischoff acknowledged the vast amounts of attention and concern highly publicized cases such as Summer’s can produce. He strongly encouraged people who remain as concerned about the outcome as NCEMC does to choose their information sources carefully.
“Our recommendation to the public is listen to law enforcement, follow their social media feeds, listen to what they’re putting out to the community,” Bischoff said.
“When they put out information to the community, that’s information they want you to know about. That’s information, if they’re looking for tips, if they’re looking for leads, you have to read that stuff and listen to it and take heart. That’s where the truth is going to be.”
Bischoff urged people to discuss do’s and don’t’s of safety with children they love and care about, including everything from safety in the woods and out in the community to safety online.
“Every day is a great day,” to have such discussions, he said. “We have a variety of different resources on our website. Have those discussions with your children and work to equip them to be as safe as they can be as they live their everyday lives.”
As for the Summer Wells case, Bischoff said like the thousands of others, it has its own unique elements.
“If you go back and take a look at each and every one of those, not one of them is exactly like the other. Each one has its own twists and its own information that needs to be looked at individually, and that’s a tough road for law enforcement.”
As that work continues, Bischoff said NCMEC’s approach won’t waver.
“Until proven otherwise, until indicated by law enforcement, we will not give up that hope that we will find her safely and as quickly as we possibly can.”