Wayland Father Develops Toolkit for Parents of Missing Children
Tony Loftis knows first-hand what it's like to have a child disappear, and he's turning his experience into a helpful tool for parents who find themselves in that situation in the future.
A parent’s worst nightmare came true last November when Tony Loftis received a phone call from his wife with the news that their 13-year-old daughter had run away from their Wayland home.
For the next 12 days, Tony Loftis canvassed New York City, where they expected their daughter had gone, and tapped into his experience with Internet communications and social media to blanket cyberspace with the news of his missing daughter.
All that effort paid off in the form of a tip that led law enforcement officials to a New Jersey house where they located the Loftis’ daughter and brought her home.
While obviously thrilled about his daughter’s safe recovery, the entire experience revealed to Tony Loftis a troubling lack of precedent when it came to utilizing the far-reaching social media and Internet landscape to locate missing children.
“The technology exists,” Loftis said, “but the organizational structure around it didn’t.”
Loftis said he was surprised during his family’s ordeal how little anyone could tell him about using social media and email to disseminate information geared toward finding his missing daughter. In the end, he said he knows that it was his knowledge and leveraging of social media that led to exposure through traditional media and, ultimately, his daughter's safe return.
Filling a Void
Now that his own daughter is safe, Loftis has turned his attention to establishing the structure that was missing when his daughter disappeared -- hoping to help parents utilize the same tools and successful processes that he embraced in a difficult situation.
“We have the opportunity to write the national policy for how to find missing kids,” Loftis said.
Loftis has codified what he knows about using social media to find children into a Social Media Toolkit for Parents. It’s just one part of a larger effort under his newly founded organization, Find Your Missing Child.
The toolkit explains in a step-by-step process how to go about doing the same things Loftis himself did. Loftis said he plans to distribute the toolkit to missing persons organizations and law enforcement agencies throughout the country and eventually to house it online.
The long-term goal for the organization – which Loftis is in the process of certifying as a nonprofit – is to create a robust online environment at FindYourMissingChild.org that features videos explaining the steps of the toolkit and even automates the various elements of using social media in the search for a child.
For instance, Loftis said he wants the platform to allow parents to upload their email address books and social media access information so that the system can auto-populate various social media outlets, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and generate viral email messages.
In addition, the program will send prompts to parents, reminding them to post something new on Facebook or send out an updated message via Twitter.
“It expands the resources and the eyes doing the looking,” said Win Treese, a friend of Loftis’ and an Internet technology professional who is providing assistance in the technology side of Find Your Missing Child. “There are a lot of things that happen – traditional things that law enforcement does, faces on milk cartons – I think that what social media may be doing here, is that a lot of it becomes more personal and engaging.
“When you can put a face with the story, the abstract or the impersonal becomes much more personal and motivating,” Treese said.
Treese pointed out that Internet communication is continuing to evolve, and he foresees Find Your Missing Child continuing to morph and take advantage of new communication options as they become available.
Goals and Growth
The primary goal of Find Your Missing Child is reflected in the organization’s name, but Loftis said it has a critical secondary benefit as well.
“This will help parents do something other than sit by the phone and wait,” Loftis said, pointing out the emotional and mental toll that not being able to help with the search can take. “They’ll take an active role in finding their missing kids.”
Lisa Goldblatt Grace is the program director of the My Life, My Choice Project, a Boston-based organization dedicated to preventing sexual exploitation among young women and providing resources for survivors.
She said that her organization is often notified when young women go missing, which is how she first became acquainted with the Loftis family. In the case of the Loftis disappearance, however, Grace said she noticed something unusual.
“What was so amazing, was that I learned about [their daughter] going missing from probably 15 different sources in the course of a week,” Grace said, explaining that she normally learns of new missing girls through law enforcement contacts. “I was just kind of amazed at what a comprehensive strategy had been taken on to try and find her. My first impression was from how many different angles I was hearing about this young woman and her need.”
Loftis stayed in touch with Grace even after his daughter had been found and soon began talking with her about his idea for Find Your Missing Child. Grace fully supported the idea, primarily because it allows parents going through a difficult situation to connect with other parents who have been through a similar experience.
“In meetings with Ton, and learning more about what he hoped to do … and the skills he brought to bear … he was really filling a niche that nobody else has and nobody else does,” Grace said. “It can play this pivotal role in supporting families individually and giving them concrete advice on what do I do to find my child quickly.”
Loftis admits that Find Your Missing Child is a work in progress that will require some significant fundraising to truly become the resource he envisions.
Still, “Families can and should benefit from the work that we’ve done so far,” he said. “We’re continuing to work on it to further benefit families during a stressful and difficult time.”
Loftis’ experience in searching for and finding his daughter has made him an expert of sorts when it comes to a horrifying, but all too common event in a parent’s life. He said more than 300,000 children go missing each year.
“It requires a parent,” Grace said, speculating on why it’s taken so long to develop a strategy around social media. “Not only did Tony [Loftis] have the knowledge, resources, the education to know how to maximize his contacts, but he also had a willingness to put himself out there and sort of make himself and his family vulnerable.”