ST. LOUIS — In the months since two kidnapped Missouri boys were found alive, more and more parents have been obtaining identification kits in case their own children go missing.
And what was once a set of fingerprints inked on a card has evolved into a high-tech offering. Families can preserve digital photos, even a DNA sample, to give to authorities if a child should vanish. The identification kits are often provided for free by community, charitable or law enforcement organizations.
The safe return of Abby Woods, an infant kidnapped from her Franklin County home late last year, spurred some increased interest. The demand grew even more in January after police found Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby in the Kirkwood apartment of Michael Devlin. Devlin pleaded guilty to kidnapping and sexual abuse charges last week and received multiple life sentences.
Nick Cichielo is the state coordinator for the Missouri Child Identification Program, or MoCHIP, which is run by the Masonic Children’s Foundation. He said demand for the program’s free kits has more than doubled in the past year.
The MoCHIP program provides families with laminated identification cards and a computer disc that law enforcement agencies can read. The disc includes digital photos, digital fingerprints, child information and emergency contacts. Children also take a dental bite impression, which Cichielo said captures a DNA sample and can provide a source of scent for canine search teams.
The Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, formed after Shawn went missing in 2002 at age 11, now aids in the search for other missing children and also educates parents and children on ways to stay safe. Since 2003, the foundation has been distributing hard plastic cards that parents can carry in their wallets. The cards feature a digital head-and-shoulders shot of a child, along with identifying information.
“I would say prior to the boys coming home, we were doing a couple of events a month,” said Sherri Martin, administrator for the foundation. “Now, we have events almost every weekend. We get more requests than we can handle.”
Martin said that, to her knowledge, Shawn had not had a child identification kit when he went missing. She said providing the kits is important to both Shawn and his parents.
“Along with the blessing of the return of their son comes the responsibility to make sure no other child goes missing and to try and bring every last missing child home,” she said.
Karl Lund, 32, of O’Fallon, recently had identification cards made for his children, Nathan, 3, and Erin, 1, through the Hornbeck Foundation . Shawn and his parents helped to make the cards at the event.
“If the unthinkable happens, we have an identification card to hand off to officials,” Lund said.
He said the abductions of Shawn and Ben made him realize something can happen to a child in a split second.
“This really brings it closer to home,” he said.
Another organization, the National Child Identification Program, hands out ID kits to families at football games and other events. The program is sponsored by the American Football Coaches Association in partnership with the FBI.
Program officials haven’t seen an upswing in interest related to the boys’ recovery, but that could be in part to the sheer volume of kits they already hand out, said Kenny Hansmire, executive director. He said the group distributes more than 3 million kits annually.
The kits allow parents to record inkless fingerprints by using a moist wipe on their child’s fingertips. The kit also give parents a swab to save a DNA sample.
FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer said that in addition to obtaining a kit, families should update photos of children once a year.