Should we fingerprint all the babies?
September 4, 2013 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Are child ID/fingerprint kits really helpful during an abduction? Is it worth the time/effort to fingerprint and photograph small children in the hopes it will help "save" them at some point?

I work for a small nonprofit preschool. A colleague recently forwarded me an email from a company offering "free, FBI-quality" fingerprinting and photographing of each child enrolled here. They would also create some kind of an "ID card". I remember doing something similar when I was in grade school. We work with a vulnerable, at-risk population so I'm all about taking extra safety measures where we can. I also think most of the 4 year old kiddos would find this fascinating. However, I remain skeptical.

So my question is: is that worth the time? Is this service really just helpful to parents and law enforcement looking for missing kids or are they entering these in to a larger database?
posted by Saminal to Law & Government (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd be asking what motivates the company offering this service. Are they going to be trying to sell the parents something?
posted by jon1270 at 3:09 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

No, it is likely not worth the time except as an exercise for kids to learn about fingerprints.

When kids are abducted, the big question is -- where are they? Fingerprints don't play a part. Photos, on the other hand, are very, very valuable.

Fingerprinting is very handy for other crimes, like trying to figure out who committed the burglary or car theft or -- in some dreadful cases -- murder.
posted by bearwife at 3:11 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

What are the crime statistics re abductions of small children in your area? How do those figures compare with other risks to that demographic? The only way to judge whether this offer is worthwhile is to take a cold, hard look at actual crime statistics. And even after that, you need to factor in the unknown quantity of how likely this fingerprinting is to have any material effect on any investigation.

My gut feeling is that this is all about profit and almost nothing to do with protecting children. This company are almost certainly out to make money in some indirect way from the anxiety of parents and other carers.
posted by pipeski at 3:11 PM on September 4, 2013

Actual numbers are hard to come by (child kidnapping statistics are tremendously skewed by everyone with an agenda trying to slice datasets in odd ways), but stereotypical stranger abductions are vanishingly small. On the order of a hundred per year.

Whenever I see organizations pushing something like this, I look deeper for the "why", because when those sorts of kidnappings do occur, they're national news. So the idea that a law enforcement agency would end up with a child and say "how do I track down this kid's parents? I know, I'll use a fingerprint database!" seems to me on the far end of absurd.
posted by straw at 3:12 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Lost" kids need name bracelets or something similar so grown-ups can get them back to Mom and Dad, and "missing" kids need their parents/caretakers to have a ton of pictures and a really good sense of what they were wearing the last time they were seen. I agree that fingerprints are primarily useful for solving crimes that require CSI-type forensic stuff - it's "who did this," which would only be helpful if authorities were trying to conclusively determine if the missing child had touched something at a given location.

I also would not give a child's identifying information to a random someone whose motives were totally mysterious.

I vote for buying an ink pad and teaching the kids about fingerprints that way, plus a camera for the photos. It's better than this rather opaque "free" business.
posted by SMPA at 3:24 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't know how effective it is, but I do know that local police departments will sometimes offer services like this (usually at county fairs/other community events, but I'm sure they could be convinced to do so for a school.) I'd be wary of going through a private company to do so.
posted by kagredon at 3:25 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

These things always weird me out. I kind of wonder where the information winds up. Do the police gain access to the prints database? Will the next push be to start collecting DNA from every child?

I dunno. Just weirds me out.

If I were a parent, maybe I'd make my own set of prints for my kids and keep them in a safe place, in case something happened.

As for whether or not this company is legit: If they're a registered non-profit, maybe. Maybe.

But if they're a private business? No. They're trying to generate sales leads by giving away something that is esesntially free. Some ink pads, some paper, and a few cheap photos, a laminating machine... the capital costs are barely noticeable, and the consumables are dirt cheap.
posted by jsturgill at 3:25 PM on September 4, 2013

Fingerprints aren't even very good for identifying bodies.

Really, with modern technology, you could produce monthly (so as to capture changes in hair and toothlessness) ID cards for the cost of paper and a laminating machine. Which you probably already have.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:27 PM on September 4, 2013

My understanding with such services is that the intention is to identify found children, alive or not. I'm not sure if they have value in finding the children.

I would consult with some local police detective and as him or her what value they have. Also, not everyone will be thrilled to have their kids registered in some fingerprint database--whether or not your prints are going into the a police system like IAFIS, (which doesn't just store criminals, but also people who are in certain kinds of jobs, bonded employment, etc.). If they're not going into your state DB or IAFIS, what are they going into? Couldn't this company dry up and blow away without warning?

Based on the language you quoted, it appears to be the Keeping Kids Safe Project. It's not entirely clear that they're a 501(c)(3) non-profit. They appear to operate by sponsorship with local businesses.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:41 PM on September 4, 2013

If you were to do this, I expect you would need the parent or guardian's permission. I can tell you as a parent, I would not give you that permission at all. I also would be concerned about FERPA if you are taking photos of the kids.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:43 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do not want my child fingerprinted for the same basic reasons that I do not want the NSA reading my email.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 4:00 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

This seems like an incredibly bad idea. The information collected would be far more useful for abducting children for ransom than preventing that abduction.

If I were you, I would probably forward the email to your local police and FBI rep asking if the offer seems legitimate. If it is, then no harm, no foul....
posted by b1tr0t at 4:07 PM on September 4, 2013

No, it is not a good idea. It is a waste of (someones) money and it sows (irrational) fear among both kids, and parents.
posted by Good Brain at 4:10 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

(Also, my understanding is that when the cops do it, it's usually the parents who keep a copy of the fingerprints/pictures/id cards, so that they can bring them in if necessary; it doesn't go into a database or anything. So the suggestion to just do it yourself would likely give equivalent results, though it'd probably be a not-bad idea to at least read up a bit on how to take usable photos and all.)
posted by kagredon at 4:11 PM on September 4, 2013

I am skeptical of people offering these services; one, every single one that has tried to stop me outside a supermarket or wherever has struck me as a kook, and, two, how on earth is it possible that one can be in possession of a child and simultaneously not in possession of endless fingerprints?

If the local police offer it as a sort of feel-good service and it comes with a bit of science-y whatnot to make it fun and interesting, maybe, but, yeah. No. That "Keeping Kids Safe Project" Sunburnt links to looks entirely like a make-work project for marginally employed grown-ups.
posted by kmennie at 5:50 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your school is at all interested in this sort of photography/fingerprinting deal, why bring in a commercial outfit when police departments do it all the time for free?

When the police do it, they give the photos & fingerprints to the parents to keep on file; what assurances do you have that this commercial outfit will do the same? Okay, some parents may not trust the police won't keep copies, but that doesn't mean the commercial group is MORE trustworthy.

My initial reaction to this out-of-the-blue offer to make free "ID cards" for your kids is Scam Alert! --- specifically, some sort of identity theft scam.
posted by easily confused at 6:20 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My gut says this is a commercial portrait studio trying to get a foot in the door to shoot photos of the kids and sell packages, with the ID card as a freebie thrown in as a feel good for the parents.

When my son was in day care there was a picture day, which was no problem but then this kind of "ID card" was thrown in as well. It wasn't given to any authorities, IIRC.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:28 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a parent I vote this to be creepy. I would never authorize anyone to fingerprint my child (except government agencies where I don't get a choice). This sounds like a scam. I can't really see any reason why fingerprints of a missing child would be useful. Finding the child is of greatest importance. DNA is going to be more useful to identify a child, and easily collected from a hairbrush or a mouth swab I imagine.
posted by Joh at 6:50 PM on September 4, 2013

Yes, the wisdom of fingerprinting children aside, using a service to do it is asking for trouble. There will be some kind of hook.

If the parents want to do it, I'm pretty sure they can just go to the police station and have it done.
posted by gjc at 8:18 PM on September 4, 2013

Police departments do fingerprinting for free, but you don't hear about it much because it hasn't been useful for the stated purpose in quite some time. The best documentation for abduction resolution is short form video, which provides visual identification, voice recognition, and and notice of mannerisms and gait. Ask a child to recite his or her name, age, grade, favorite book/color/animal, family members. Repeat yearly. Keep in a safe place, not on the internet. (IANAPoliceOfficer, but I was a target for parental abduction as a child and have kept up with the latest on this topic.)
posted by juniperesque at 5:36 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

In my state (and others), the Masons offer a "CHIP" service (CHild Identification Program) like the one you describe; at the invitation of a school or community event, volunteers come set up with a computer kit with which they take down basic stats (birthday/address/eye color/hair color etc), a fingerprint scan, and record a short video interview with the child, asking all of the questions that juniperesque mentioned. A volunteer dental hygienist is also on hand and does a cheek swab for DNA, and a wax bite impression.

All of the information collected is burned to a DVD, which is handed to the family along with the swab and bite impression, and then it's completely purged from the computer. They don't keep any information about anyone. Seriously. There is no angle or hook, unless you count a little bit of public exposure for the Masons. (and I'd argue that's not actually all that helpful, because people see the 'chip' acronym and the square and compasses and you get idiotic "Why are the Freemasons are implanting microchips in our children?" conspiracy theories all over the internet.)

Why do they do it, then? Because Masons are good guys, and feel that it's a valuable service to provide to their communities. I can absolutely understand why the gut reaction is suspicion, and personally I think it's morbid and helps feed some irrational fears, but I helped out with a CHIP event once and it's exactly what it it claims to be... A free no-strings attached community service to provide parents with a kit they can give to the police if their child goes missing. The computer equipment and supplies are paid for by the state Grand Lodge and everyone involved volunteers their time.

A commercial entity offering the same kind of service, though? I agree that seems super hinky.
posted by usonian at 11:23 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

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