How Facebook helps find missing children: ‘There is never a clue too small’

28 Jun 2018

Facebook app on mobile. Image: Allmy/Shutterstock

Emily Vacher has devoted much of her professional life to the protection of vulnerable children, and her work at Facebook is helping many.

Trust and safety director at Facebook, Emily Vacher, is passionate about protecting vulnerable young people. A former FBI special agent for more than a decade, she spent several years on the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team (CARD), working with others under enormous pressure to track down critically endangered children.

Following her FBI career, Vacher joined Facebook in 2011 where she now holds her current position. spoke to her at Facebook’s EMEA HQ in Dublin about the recent partnership with An Garda Síochána that sees Ireland become the 18th country in the world to have acute missing-child alerts integrated with the Facebook platform. They are known in Ireland as Child Rescue Ireland (CRI) alerts.

A former lawyer, Vacher was inspired by a retired FBI agent to follow her current path. As a passionate advocate for missing children, her explanation for working with CARD was succinct: “I wanted to protect kids.”

During her time with the CARD team, Vacher and others were required to respond at lightning speed to Amber Alerts around the US in order to locate abducted children. These alerts were put in place following the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in 1996, after law enforcement officials noted that sharing information with the wider public – and fast ­– could be the difference between life or death.

John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner special crime operations of An Garda Síochána is pictured with Emily Vacher, director of trust and safety at Facebook at the announcement of a partnership between Facebook and An Garda Síochána

John O’Driscoll, assistant commissioner of special crime operations of An Garda Síochána, with Emily Vacher, director of trust and safety at Facebook. Image: Andres Poveda

Getting vital information to the public

As a former agent on the ground in the US, Vacher has seen these alerts save lives firsthand. “It’s about getting the information about the missing child into the hands of the public. In many instances, it’s not actually the police that solve the cases, it’s the public – so, they’ll see the car, they’ll see the child, they’ll pick up the phone and share the information.”

If a child in Ireland is abducted and a serious risk is presented, all 2.8m Facebook users in the country will now see CRI alerts integrated into their news feed. Vital information such as hair colour, photographs, vehicle type and details about the expected abductor will galvanise the public to share information they may see as useful, helping to potentially secure the safe return of the child.

Take the alert seriously

The alert will be easily shareable, so users can disseminate the details in their various groups. Vacher explained that the alerts should be taken with the utmost seriousness. “If you see an alert, it is a very rare occurrence and it means there is a child in very imminent danger of harm and that child may be somewhere around you.

“In the alert, there needs to be information that the public can actually use, so you can’t just say: ‘A six-month-old is missing.’” Vacher continued, saying that more is required: “Here is her picture, this is what she was last wearing, she was seen in this car with this make, model, colour and licence tag.”

She added that people should not hesitate in getting in touch with information following the issuance of an alert. “There is never a clue too small. It’s better to call the police and say: ‘This sounds crazy but this is what I saw.’ In a lot of cases, that’s what solves the crime.”

At a press conference launching the initiative, assistant commissioner of special crime operations at An Garda Síochána, John O’Driscoll, said: “Since it was launched in 2012, our Child Rescue Ireland alerts already reach a big audience thanks to electronic road signs, radio and television but now that they can be sent through Facebook, even more people will participate in the search, which significantly increases the chances of bringing the child back home safely.”

As part of her work at Facebook, Vacher travels and collaborates with the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the provision of training for law enforcement as well as tools, as rescuing abducted children is “kind of a speciality”.

Looking to the future, Vacher is determined to bring the alert function to every country with Facebook users. “Children everywhere deserve the benefit of a tool like this.”

Facebook app on mobile. Image: Allmy/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects