Age progression breathes new life into missing persons’ cold cases
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Cape Town - Giving a glimpse of hope to families whose loved ones have gone missing years ago, Missing Children South Africa has started using age progression.
The technology allows then to somewhat determine how that person might look years after going missing.
The Italian Missing Children is working with Missing Children South Africa to make this possible. The Italian Missing Children is a free service that puts the analysis methodologies of forensic anthropology at the disposal of missing children.
“The ageing process of a face on a photo does not simply occur by adding wrinkles. The in-depth knowledge of forensic anthropologists and forensic artists regarding the components of the human face allows to make an accurate estimate of what could be the aspect of the individual in question with the passing of the years,” said Laura Donato, president of the Italian Missing Children.
She added that although the bone structure remains almost unchanged, the physiognomic elements undergo modifications that lead them to create a similar but at the same time different appearance of a face at different ages.
Donato said generally it is to be considered that there is a good part of cartilage and collagen in the human face, the resistance of which decreases with the years.
Collagen is the element that allows young skin to have a firm and well-relaxed appearance, free of wrinkles. Over the years, the collagen texture loses elasticity, progressively suffering more and more from the effect of gravity. This is not only the cause of the birth of wrinkles but also causes the lengthening of the ears and nose.
“These two physiognomic elements maintain their morphology but vary in size. During the first years of growth, up to about 20 years of age, one cannot speak of the birth of wrinkles or loss of elasticity of the skin. The changes that the face undergoes during these years are more related to genetic factors and to growth. To be clearer, during the ageing processing of a photo of a missing child much attention is given to the similarity of the individual facial components with those of the closest family members,” said Donato.
When forensic anthropologists and forensic artists accept an assignment for the realisation of age progression, they need photos of the parents, brothers and/or sisters of the deceased at different ages. There is a very specific reason why this request is made. Although each individual is unique in his general appearance, the details of his face denote affinity with his closest relatives.
She explained that in order to have the possibility of achieving accurate ageing, the forensic artist or the forensic anthropologist must have the possibility to study which elements of the missing child’s face are similar to members of his family.
Donato used an example of a having a photo of a four-year-old boy and of having to achieve aging 10 years after his disappearance. To make age progression she would have to speculate how the face of a four-year-old boy may have turned into the face of a 14-year-old boy.
“From the study of the photo of the missing child we can observe the similarity, for example, between the shape of his eyes and that of the mother’s eyes. Having the photo of the mother at the age of 14 will allow you to know how that particular shape of eyes looks like at the age of 14. Thus, in the reconstruction of aging it is possible to insert eyes similar to what is likely to be the morphology of the missing boy’s eyes,” said Donato.
This method is repeated for each element of the face up to build a sort of puzzle that represents an allegedly accurate version of the real current appearance of the missing person.
She added that the reality is that there is always room for error. For example, they cannot know if the missing child, during his/her life away from the family, has suffered trauma or has gained weight or lost weight.
“Just imagine how a face can change if you break your nose. Sometimes, at first glance, it may seem to be looking at another person. Looking more carefully, however, one realises that there are recognisable elements, similarities and affinities. It is obvious that the aim is to create an age progression as close as possible to the real aspect,” said Donato.
“For this reason every forensic artist or anthropologist who is about to achieve an age progression, therefore has good reasons to request photographs of the families of the missing children. The more information you can gather, the easier it will be to achieve an aging faithful to the real features of the missing child and the better the chances of finding him and bringing him home safely,” said Donato.
She has been studying forensic anthropology for 15 years, focusing on everything related to human identification.
“Many people have been found thanks to the age progression technique. In the United States we have many examples of missing children who have been brought home after many years thanks to the dissemination of the images obtained from the age progression. It takes time but above all it is very important that people spread the photos of the age progression so that as many people as possible can see them. In this way the chances of finding a missing child increase, even after many years,” said Donato.
Bianca van Aswegan, national co-ordinator for Missing Children South Africa, said they have started the age progression in the hopes of getting information on these cold cases and by doing the age progression it gives an indication of what the person or child might look like today. We have started a #stillnotfound campaign to re-feature cold cases to see if we can get any new information regarding these cases.
“Our mission is to be able to give closure to the families and reunite them with their loved ones that are missing,” said Van Aswegan.
She said this has given many families hope.
“It gives an indication of what the person or child will possibly look like today. There is always hope with a missing person’s case as we have dealt with cases where a person or a child has been missing for a very long time and by re-sharing our flyers and getting them out there as far and wide as possible we have been able to close some cases. We as an organisation never give up on any of our cases we are assisting with and therefore we have started with the age progression photos with the hope that we can get some information on some of the cold cases,” said Van Aswegan.