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The formation of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was spurred by notable child abductions, such as the 1979 abduction of six-year-old Etan Patz from New York City, and the 1981 abduction and murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Florida. Because police had the ability to record and track information about stolen cars, stolen guns, and even stolen horses with the FBI's national crime computer, it was believed that the same should be done with children. In 1984, the U.S. Congress passed the Missing Children's Assistance Act, which established a National Resource Center and Clearinghouse on Missing & Exploited Children. On June 13, 1984, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was formed by President Ronald Reagan in a White House ceremony to maintain those resources. The national 24-hour toll-free missing children's hotline 1-800-THE-LOST was also established.
Primarily funded by the Justice Department, the NCMEC acts as an information clearinghouse and resource for parents, children, law enforcement agencies, schools, and communities to assist in locating missing children and to raise public awareness about ways to prevent child abduction, child sexual abuse and child pornography. John Walsh, Noreen Gosch, and others advocated establishing the center as a result of frustration stemming from a lack of resources and coordination between law enforcement and other government agencies.
The Center provides information to help locate children reported missing (by parental abduction, child abduction, or running away from home) and to assist physically and sexually abused children. In this resource capacity, the NCMEC distributes photographs of missing children and accepts tips and information from the public. It also coordinates these activities with numerous state and federal law enforcement agencies.
During the mid to late 1980s, the toy Teddy Ruxpin became the "Official Spokesbear" for the center at the height of his popularity. Due to this partnership, some stories featured extra information for kids to stay safe from abductions, sexual predators, etc. This also caused his animated series to feature a clip titled "Protect Yourself" in which safety information for kids would be given by then popular child actors.
In September 2013, the United States House of Representatives, United States Senate, and the President of the United States voted to reauthorize $40 million in funding for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as part of Missing Children’s Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2013 (H.R. 3092; 113th Congress).
Effective September 5, 1995, applications seeking the return of or access to children in the United States under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction were processed through the NCMEC for the United States Department of State, Office of Children's Issues under contract with the United States Department of State and the United States Department of Justice. On April 1, 2008, the Office of Children's Issues in the Department of State re-assumed U.S. Central Authority duties for processing incoming cases under the Hague Abduction Convention. As a result of its status as a government contractor as well as funding provided under the Missing Children Act and Missing Children's Assistance Act, the National Center receives (as of 2008) US$40-million funding each year from the United States Government.
In 1998, NCMEC founded a separate international organization, International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC), to do similar work in the international arena. In August, 2008, the ICMEC was granted "Special Consultative Status" with the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), primarily to assist the UN by providing expertise regarding the issues of child sexual exploitation and child abduction.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is an associate of PACT Parents and Abducted Children Together in the United Kingdom.
The UK Missing Kids is a website developed by the NCMEC that distributes images of missing children to the public and police agencies worldwide, and forms part of a 17-country Global Missing Children's network. The ACPO approved police website is managed by the Missing Persons Bureau based at the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) at Bramshill, Hampshire. Launched in 2000, the website distributes images of missing children to the public and police agencies worldwide. Posters can be printed directly from the website by the police and public allowing these to be displayed anywhere.cit req
In 2007 NCMEC and Duracell along with the public relations firm PainePR produced a children's book title The Great Tomato Adventure: A Story About Smart Safety Choices along with a series of educational tools for parents and guardians of older children called Teachable Moments Guides. The books were produced and published by Arbor Books and the foreword was written by actress, and best-selling children's book author, Jada Pinkett Smith. Both tools were introduced as an extension of the successful child safety program that launched in 2006. The book was made available as a free download via the Power of Parents program Web site.