[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/03/31/art.crime.sandra.cantu.jpg caption="Sandra Cantu was last seen on Friday, March 27."]
In the hours after Sandra Cantu vanished in a mobile home park last week in California, the Tracy Police Department canvassed the area, spoke to family members, and attempted to retrace the 8-year-old girl's movements before she disappeared.
As the preliminary investigation moved forward, a police officer sat at a computer and accessed the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Formed by the FBI, the NCIC is a multi-agency shared database containing records on crimes and criminals. It is up and running 24/7 and available to every local, state, and federal law enforcement agency in the United States.
The officer who punched in the details about the Sandra Cantu case also checked a box on the report, indicating a child is missing and may be at serious risk. That red flag doesn't just reach cops across the country. It also sends the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children into action.
"It's called the CA flag, child abduction flag," says Ernie Allen, the center's President. "It prints out on our hotline, so our staff will alert a case manager." If the center believes it can be of value and assistance, experts will be dispatched to the scene.
"We have a program called Team Adam," Allen explains. Patterned after the NTSB's rapid-fire response to plane crashes, Team Adam members will act as site consultants, advising and aiding investigators, and utilizing their knowledge to help bring the child home.
"Our guys go in and have very low profiles," Allen says. "The way we can be the greatest value in these cases is to provide consultation, training, technology and forensic expertise."
Established in 1984, the center is a nonprofit organization. It is also mandated by Congress to operate a toll-free hotline, 1-800-The-Lost, for tips and leads for missing persons cases.
Allen says there are two Team Adam consultants on the ground in Tracy, California. They don't have weapons, and they can't make arrests. But they do come equipped with the experience needed in the search for Sandra. And Allen has a message of hope for the family of the little girl.
"There are scenarios under which it is our view Sandra can be found and brought home safely," he says. "Somebody out there knows. Somebody out there has information."
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