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Adam Palmer is director of the Office of Legal Counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Alexandria, Va.-based organization dedicated to helping prevent child abduction and sexual exploitation, finding missing children, and assisting victims of child abduction and sexual exploitation.
Can you talk a bit about the history of the NCMEC? In 1981, 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Florida shopping mall and was later found murdered. Adam’s father, John Walsh, and his wife then established the Adam Walsh Center for Missing Children in Florida. In 1984, Ronald Reagan had a vision of a national center for missing children. Congress passed a law called the Missing Children’s Assistance Act and directed that a national clearinghouse be established. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was designated as the national clearinghouse for information about missing children. In 1990 we merged with the Adam Walsh Center. At that time we had a 62 percent rate of recovering missing children. In 1995 we entered into a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State to assist in international child abduction cases. In 1997 we established a training center for state and federal prosecutors and we also established our exploited child unit. In the early years we mostly focused on abductions, but the exploited child unit has grown to be our second-largest department. In fact, Internet service providers are mandated by federal law to report to our Cybertipline if they detect material that they believe is child pornography or child exploitation on a computer system. There’s also a public feature on our Cybertipline for the general public to make reports. We have received over 300,000 separate reports to the Cybertipline since its creation. The NCMEC headquarters is in Alexandria, Virginia, but we also have offices in five other states: Florida, South Carolina, New York, California, and Kansas City, Missouri. Our recovery rate today for missing children exceeds 94 percent. We are a 501c(3) charity, and 94 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to our programs. Doesn’t the pervasiveness of the Internet make your job that much harder? We’re trying. It’s a growing concern for the nation and our communities, and we’re trying to grow to confront that problem. We hope someday to put ourselves out of business, but we will be here as long as the children are out there and need us. With the growth of the Internet the exploitation of children has increased, and the images and the people who prey on children have been able to expand their reach globally. One of the goals of our mission is confronting that problem. Our exploited children unit is focused and works very closely with Internet service providers in helping us to try to prevent the exploitation of children on-line. We average almost 2,000 reports of child exploitation to the Cybertipline every week. How many of these reports are real and how many are not? The vast majority are very serious. These are young children and are horrific images of their abuse. With the technology today the Internet becomes a permanent record of that child’s abuse. We see children who are now adults, and yet the images that were taken when they were children continue to be traded today. It’s a sad reality that it’s very difficult to remove those images from the Web. We keep a database of known images, and when law enforcement seizes a computer, they can send us images and we will compare them to the ones in our database. We can see if it’s a known child. If it’s a child we have not seen, it could be a child who is currently being abused. Our position is that every time these images are traded, people are re-abusing them, even if they’re not touching the child. These are crime-scene images and are being traded for sexual gratification by people on the Internet, and every time it’s done, it re-victimizes that child. It’s an important mission, and the reward is to protect those who are the most innocent victims of a heinous crime. Do you do outreach? We have almost 300 employees and a division called Netsmartz, which goes to schools teaching Internet safety to children and parents, and it’s been very successful. We use cartoon characters and other teaching aids and help children learn basic tips, such as “Don’t give your name out” and other types of things that might seem to be common sense to adults. We also have publications, outreach, and external affairs departments that help parents, kids, and professionals to become educated about child-exploitation issues. What is your background? My background is really diverse, but it’s proven to be an incredible asset. I graduated from law school in 2000, and after that I joined the Navy and became a criminal prosecutor assigned to Pearl Harbor. I was a JAG-commissioned lieutenant assigned as a trial counsel. I had cases ranging from petty theft to even a double homicide. I handled a very large child pornography case while I was in the Navy. Overall, it was a great experience, handling over 20 contested trials in three years. I found the child pornography case to be especially rewarding. I gained a conviction in that case despite some tough obstacles. I left the Navy in 2003, and I had also finished my MBA at the University of Hawaii from night school. I left the Navy because I wanted to continue to do trial work, being in the courtroom, and not go to some admiral’s legal staff. I worked briefly for a firm doing civil litigation, for about one year, until a position as a staff attorney with NCMEC came up. I wanted to continue to do work that I felt was both challenging and rewarding, and one of the things that I liked about the child-exploitation cases was that it was both rewarding to protect innocent victims and technically challenging, and one of the toughest cases to present as a litigator. Many cases involve highly technical computer issues over the Internet. You have to be a very skilled trial advocate to present an effective child Internet-pornography case. It can easily become overtechnical and confusing to a jury. As a trial attorney, you have to really be thinking about how to present evidence in an effective way to the jury. So I was hired at NCMEC as a staff attorney, and six months later, the general counsel decided to take some time off from legal practice. We went several months without a legal director, and so I seized on the opportunity to prove myself to the center. I was then promoted to director of the legal office, and now I supervise two other attorneys and two paralegals. Two other attorneys work in our legislative department, and two in international abductions. They report to the COO, but the two attorneys I supervise report to me. We don’t lobby, but we get frequent requests from legislatures or from the general public, asking about laws and how they affect crimes against children. My title is director of the Office of Legal Counsel. With my MBA and prosecutor background it’s a perfect combination to work here, because we handle corporate needs as well as advising on criminal law issues. Today I don’t actively litigate, but I still do use my public-speaking skills. We run a training program, funded by the DOJ, and we speak to prosecutors around the country also in other seminars on how to prosecute these cases. I am frequently invited to speak to groups of prosecutors, and I enjoy the experience. What are the challenges of your job? I have probably the most diverse practice possible. We have all the issues that face larger companies but on a smaller scale. Whenever the phone rings, that’s the issue we’ll be working on for the center. We handle everything ranging from contracts issues — we have a full-time contracts attorney — to IP, protecting many of our characters in our Netsmartz group. We also respond to frequent subpoenas and corporate issues, being a large charity. Our goal is to be a trustworthy and well-run organization, so that individuals know they can trust us. Do you use outside counsel? I think it’s important to mention that we recently signed an agreement with Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, which provides us with on-demand pro bono work. Sidley has spent countless hours assisting us in IP, employment matters, and other legal issues. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe has also been very generous in providing pro bono assistance. If we had to use paid outside counsel, it would be extremely expensive. Sidley Austin does a significant amount of our work, and without them we would have been spending a great deal of money and my own time. So it’s been a wonderful blessing to the center. For those firms it’s a great benefit also in that we get great assistance and they can use it to train new associates, who get to work on some interesting issues with a nice organization. It’s a good training program that the associates we work with seem to enjoy. How would you describe an average day? There is no such thing as an average day. My approach is to try to tackle the hardest project first. Ever since I was in the military, I tend to get into work early, because by 9 a.m. when the phones start ringing, it’s hard to focus. I have a half-hour meeting with my staff, and then I try to knock out one of the big projects. Then I’m encouraged not to feel intimidated by the smaller projects. We get a lot of unique issues, which can be frustrating, but one of the joys is also the variety of issues. Having an MBA, I’m looking around as a businessperson at what we do, trying to become an effective legal office and improve what we do. I try to spend 20 to 30 minutes every day thinking about what we’re doing and how we can do it better. I think a lot of employees at the center have hearts of gold. The hardest part sometimes is to try to balance staff who want to jump into a mission with the need to protect the center. I’m asking them to step back a minute and think about procedures and policies. I want to make sure that whatever we’re looking at is the right thing to do. I have to ask the obvious question: Do you have children? I’m married, but I don’t have children. My wife and I would like to have a family in the future. Working here definitely raises your awareness of the dangers that exist for children. But you also have to let a child live, and you can’t lock them in the house 24 hours a day. Working here does make me more sensitive and cautious, and think about how I will try to protect them. I keep a picture of my 2-year-old niece just playing in the sandbox — to remind me that there are pictures out there like that, [of children] just enjoying life and having fun. My heart goes out to children who are abused, and you can’t help but want to do everything you can. What’s the best part of the job? I think the best part of my day is seeing a project that has achieved success. A prosecutor recently called me to tell me he had gained a conviction because of my advice. I saved it on my voice mail, and every time I feel too busy to help, I replay that message. I think you have to do that. What do you do in your free time? Having lived in Hawaii, I really enjoy outdoor activities. My wife and I like to go for walks, jog, spend time with friends. We loved all the fantastic restaurants in Hawaii, and since we’ve moved to D.C., we love trying new cuisine. Read any good books lately? I recently finished the autobiography of John Adams. I was truly moved by the story of a person who had selflessly devoted himself to his country and had tried to live up to the high standards he had set for himself. I also read a more business-related book, Execution: the Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. It had a good message about putting ideas into action. That’s important. How old are you? I’m 31. Quite honestly, I’ve been on many corporate counsel committees, and I tend to be younger than my colleagues in similar positions. Most have been very kind to me, and I consider them great mentors. I’m grateful for the trust of NCMEC, and so far I think I have been successful in my position.

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