Ultimate Guide to Child IDs

Santa Ana police officer Mike Fuller fingerprints 7-year-old Taylor Holash on Kid's Safety Day at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, Calif.
Santa Ana police officer Mike Fuller fingerprints 7-year-old Taylor Holash on Kid's Safety Day at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, Calif.
David McNew/Getty Images

The 1996 introduction of the AMBER Alert missing-child system drew increased attention to an already startling problem: In the United States alone, a child is reported missing every 40 seconds [source: KIDSAFE]. That's more than 2,000 missing children every day in a single country. Groups all over the world are introducing measures to try to address this issue, and one program that has recently gained widespread attention is the child ID.

The state of Indiana is attempting to distribute one to all of its school-age children in 2009; sheriff's departments in states like Florida and Alabama have provided hundreds of thousands of child ID kits to elementary school students; and in 2008, Denver Broncos player Marcus Thomas sponsored a child ID for every kindergartener in Colorado [source: NCIP].

What exactly is this "child ID"? It's not an implant (like the child microchip that has garnered controversial coverage) or an external, LoJack-type tracking device, both of which have privacy activists up in arms. It's really just a collection of information, and it's becoming a pretty popular method of preparing for the worst.

Of course, privacy activists may take issue with some types of child IDs, too. It all depends on how they're set up. In this article, we'll find out what a child ID involves. We'll see how it's used and why it might be beneficial, what information it includes, where you can get one and what to look for (and avoid) in a child ID.

To begin with, a child ID is one of those things you have in the hopes you'll never use it, because it's intended to be useful when a child disappears. Understanding exactly how a child ID can be useful requires knowing what happens when a child is first reported missing.


Using Child IDs

Most child IDs feature standard information, such as weight, height, hair and eye color.
Most child IDs feature standard information, such as weight, height, hair and eye color.

When a child disappears, police can't instantly rush out and start looking, although that's what everyone would like to happen. First, officers need details. Lots of them.

The first thing that happens when a missing-child report is filed is the information-gathering process, which can be time-consuming. Officers need a clear, representative photo, full vital statistics, any identifying marks like scars or birthmarks and other details that can aid in the search. Collecting those details can take a while when parents are out of their minds with worry. That's where a child ID comes in. If the parents have set one up, they can just hand all of that information to the police, answer a few additional questions and the search is under way.

The information stored in a child ID kit can vary, but all of them contain certain basics, including hair and eye color, height, weight, identifying marks and a recent photo, all of which should be updated at least every six months. Some kits also contain dental impressions, fingerprints and DNA, although these details are somewhat controversial, since in the missing-child context they're probably only going to be useful once the child is found. In the middle of an abduction scenario, authorities seldom have time to dust for prints or test for DNA.

Still, many people choose to include this information to be thorough. And in some instances the information may prove helpful: The Page County Sheriff's office in Virginia, for instance, which fingerprinted children for child IDs, is storing the information in a central database along with things like special needs, such as medication or disabilities, as an overall child-protection measure.

This database concept is actually somewhat controversial, too. Some child ID proponents claim that storing the information in a database that police can access makes the information-gathering process even faster in the event that the worst happens. Along the same lines, some child ID providers advise parents to give all caretakers access to the ID in case the child goes missing when he or she is in someone else's care. But other organizations, like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, disagree with this advice. They say that only parents and full-time guardians should have access to the information, and that central databases should be avoided, in order to prevent unauthorized eyes from looking at your child's information.

The access question is one of the primary details that differ among the various child ID providers out there. So, when choosing a provider, what should you look for?

Child ID Providers

Authorities can start the search process -- and hopefully rescue -- faster when the child's basic information is on hand.
Authorities can start the search process -- and hopefully rescue -- faster when the child's basic information is on hand.
Photo courtesy of USAID

The movement toward supplying every U.S. child with an ID kit has been on for several years now, and the sources for the kits are pretty numerous. Some police departments provide them. So do local and state governments and schools. Businesses and sports teams sponsor public events you can find out about through your local community calendar. In all of these cases, child ID kits are provided for free.

In the event that you don't have access to one of these free distribution occasions, you can pick up a kit online. There are lots of providers (just do a search for "child ID" to check out some of the sites), but they're not all the same. Some charge for the kits, and others provide them for free through commercial sponsors. Even one you have to buy should be very inexpensive; beware of an organization trying to charge you $100. You shouldn't have to pay more than $20 or $40, total -- and that's only if the provider offers secure online storage (read on).

In deciding where to get a kit, you'll probably have to choose which type of access you're comfortable with. Some providers offer online database storage for your child's information; with most of these services, you set a password that grants access to the ID, and you decide who gets to know the password. In some cases, though, providers offer storage in a central database that's openly available to agencies like law enforcement.

There's no absolute right and wrong when it comes to child IDs, although it's worth noting that the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children doesn't support the use of central databases, mostly because it's harder to control access to your child's data.

The other primary difference among providers is the information their kits support. Some include swabs for DNA, equipment to get dental impressions, and fingerprint kits. Others leave out these forensic details and stick to guiding you in what you'll need to initiate a search: information on appearance, identifying characteristics, personal habits and mannerisms, and a good photo that can be passed out to law enforcement to help them locate your child.

In the United States, 800,000 children are reported missing each year, so whether you opt for the full forensic-data collection or the height-and-weight approach, it's probably worth the effort to set up some sort of child ID kit [source: IDSNews]. Hopefully, you'll never have to pull it out.

For more information on child IDs, missing children and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Best Practices Guide for Child ID Kits. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/documents/BestPracticeChildIDKit.pdf
  • Cooper, Allie. "Ind. children to receive ID kits." Indiana Daily Student. Oct. 12, 2009.http://www.idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=70899
  • Family Trusted Child IDhttp://www.childid.com/
  • FAQ: Child ID. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PageServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=3440
  • Harris, McKinsey. "Page County Sheriff's Office Makes Child IDs." WHSV. Aug. 31, 2009.http://www.whsv.com/childrenfirst/headlines/56247357.html
  • Smith, Mike. "ID kits being sent to 162,000 Indiana children." Chicago Tribune. Oct. 6, 2009.http://archives.chicagotribune.com/2009/oct/06/sports/chi-ap-in-childid
  • Why a Child ID? KIDSAFE ID.http://www.kidsafeid.com/whychildid.html