VINTON–In 1984 Congress established the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to assist law enforcement agencies in locating missing or abducted children. According to the NCMEC website, “an estimated 800,000 children are reported missing each year–more than 2,000 children every day.”
The NCMEC strongly recommends that a child’s recent digital photograph be quickly available to the parent or guardian at all times, in easily transmitted digital format. Parents and guardians should also have a written description of their child, including hair and eye color, weight, height, date of birth, ethnicity, any health considerations, and unique physical attributes such as eyeglasses, braces, piercings, scars, birthmarks, and blemishes, which can be helpful in identifying a recovered child. The NCMEC further recommends having fingerprints taken by a trained professional.
The mission of the Masons’ Virginia Child Identification Program (VACHIP) using the EZ Child ID software program is to assist parents in gathering this information.
On Saturday, February 16, Masons from three local Lodges prepared thirty child identification packets for families attending the book launch of Robert Chappell’s “Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Should Know” at the Vinton War Memorial.
The organization will be providing the same service at the Vinton Dogwood Festival this spring, where last year they prepared over 100 sets of information.
In past years, they have volunteered their time and services at the Vinton Fall Festival (last year making 130 child id packets), the Vinton Police Department’s Bike Rodeo, and at various other events throughout the Valley, such as PTA meetings and other school activities, the Mom’s Club of Roanoke, family fun days at specific businesses, day cares, and at Tanglewood Mall. The packets are even prepared individually in special situations.
Craig Sheets, Executive Director of the Rockbridge Regional Public Safety Communications 911 Dispatch Center, and a member of the Vinton Masonic Lodge #204, is frequently found at events heading up the project. Masons from several Lodges volunteer to man the child ID events, so that several computers are available at once.
In the span of just a few minutes, Sheets and other volunteers are able to take three digital photos of the child (front and both sides), digitally scan and save the child’s fingerprints, make a short video with voice analysis, and complete basic information which is all saved on one sheet and printed out for the parent. The lower section can be laminated for the parent to carry in a wallet or purse.
For the video, the child is usually ask some fairly innocuous questions concerning favorite color, favorite food, name of school, and best friend, to obtain a record of a brief interaction with a stranger. A CD with all of the information is then created.
The single sheet given to the parent contains all the vital information required by the Amber Alert System. The CD and data sheet can be loaded at a dispatch center for immediate release if the child should become missing.
The parent or guardian receives an envelope with a CD of the child’s photo, fingerprints, and description, a data report with the information, pictures, and fingerprints, and a DNA cheek swab packet which the parents can complete and store at home.
The information is immediately deleted from the computer and so is only in the possession of the parent. No copies are made or retained by any agency.
“The parent gets it all,” said Sheets. “We only keep the parent permission slip to show who requested the kit.”
The EZ Child ID program has been in use in the Roanoke Valley since 2009. Masonic Lodges in District 22 have purchased some of the programs; others have been donated or purchased with funds from local groups, individuals, and law enforcement agencies. Some have been purchased with drug forfeiture money.
The EZ Child ID program software is not inexpensive. The program must be purchased individually for each computer at a cost of around $3100 per computer.
The District office houses all of the individual computers and then Lodges join together when events are scheduled.
“We never want to see the Child ID packets used,” said Duffy Ferguson, District Coordinator for the Grand Lodge Virginia Freemason District 22. “But we want the information to be available when it is needed, and quickly.”
Masons District 22 encompasses eleven Lodges in the Greater Roanoke Valley, including Roanoke City, Salem, and the Town of Vinton, along with outlying areas such as Buchanan, Troutville and Fincastle.
The child identification project has been adopted by Masonic Lodges across the state. It’s their largest and most public community service project in the Commonwealth.
The Child ID program is recommended for all ages, six months through teenagers. The Masons recommend that it be repeated every year or two as children grow and change.
Freemasonry is the world’s oldest and largest fraternal organization, based on the belief that each man has a responsibility to improve himself while being devoted to his family, faith, country, and fraternity.
“Our goal is to make good men better,” said Ferguson.
In Virginia the organization is known as the Grand Lodge, A.F. & A.M. (Ancient Free and Accepted Masons) of Virginia. One of the most important principles of freemasonry is charity. The Masons founded and support the Shriner’s Hospitals for Children, eye, speech and hearing foundations, and scholarship programs. In many communities they organize and host blood drives.
Masons collectively are estimated to raise more than 2.6 million dollars a day nationwide to help people in need.
Their goal with the Child ID program is to provide a valuable community service, to aid in the recovery of lost or missing children, to encourage Masons to become involved in the community, and to promote a positive image of the organization and broaden public awareness of what they do.
The Vinton Masonic Lodge #204 is located on Washington Avenue and currently has about 130 members. It was chartered in December of 1890, and is under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Virginia.