Do those milk carton photos of missing kids really help locate them? If you saw the photo of a missing child in the newspaper or on TV, would you recognize that child if he or she was standing next to you in the line at the grocery store? A psychologist wants to find out.

In 1999, there were an estimated 58,200 child victims of non-family abductions, the most recent national estimates available on missing children. Of that number, 115 were stereotypical kidnappings. More than 200,000 other children were the victims of family abductions during the same period.Researcher Vicki S. Gier decided to find out what type of photo is most likely to help in the recognition of a missing child. Adult participants viewed photos of children similar to their school photos, along with photos of the same children appearing unkempt, tired, bruised, sad or angry. Afterward, they were asked to recognize the children from different photos in which their appearances had been altered.

Gier says, “If an adult sees a picture of child who is clean in appearance and at a later time sees another picture of the same child with the same appearance, then recognition is good. Likewise, if an adult sees a picture of a child with a dirty face and later sees a picture of the same child with a dirty face, then recognition is also good. However, if the child appears very differently between their original appearance and the later appearance, recognition is poor.” The problem is that pictures of children are usually from school photos, where the child is clean, well-dressed and smiling, while abducted kids are likely to be unkempt and unhappy.

Gier got the idea for her research after watching an episode of the CBS television show “Without a Trace.” She says, “At the end of the show, they always show a photograph of a real person who is missing. On this particular evening, the missing person was a young child. I noticed that the picture which had been given to the FBI was a school-like photo. The little girl was clean, well-groomed and smiling. So, I wondered what picture my sons would give to the police if, heaven forbid, any of my granddaughters were missing or abducted.”

Hopefully, her research results will lead authorities to find more missing children.

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