Courtesy: Steve Carter [National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children]

A little over a year ago, Steve Carter saw a news story about an Atlanta woman who recognized herself on a missing child poster and ended up solving her own kidnapping.

Later that day Carter, who'd always known he was adopted, decided to search missingkids.com himself, the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the U.S., hoping like the woman in the story that the website might be able to help him solve some of the mysteries of his own childhood.

"I searched male, missing 34 years, Hawaii. The first picture that popped up was a picture of Marx Panama Moriarty Barnes, and the picture was actually quite similar to what I look like... even the facial smirk is a smirk that I have," Carter said in a telephone interview from his Philadelphia home.

He asked some friends to have a look at the age progression picture of the missing boy from Hawaii.

"Everybody was like, yeah, that looks just like you," Carter said. "I ended up calling my parents and talked to them for about 20 minutes and they were floored."

They suggested he contact the Honolulu Police Department, which he did. Ten months after reading that fateful news story, DNA test results were in.

"I was Marx Panama Moriarty Barnes."

One of the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable story is how artists were able to come up with an age progression photo that looked like Carter at 28 years old - based on a few photos taken of him before he disappeared at six months.

"It's more art than science," said David Janes, an age progression specialist for the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre in Ottawa.

Ideally, Janes said, there are plenty of photos of the parents as they aged, as well as photos of the missing child and siblings.

"Your face has similarities towards your mom or your dad. Eating habits and everything will change - people gain weight, lose weight - but your facial structure will always lean toward your mom or your dad," Janes said. "We analyze both faces... we look at how they start to age. At the age of 10 you haven't aged much, but when you start looking at the face of a 15-year old you start to see more indentations in the face."

Janes has been specially trained to use software to construct what is his best estimate of how the child looks five, 10, even 20 or more years after they've gone missing. It is a process highly subjective to the artist's gut feeling on how a child would look - are they tanned? Chubby? Long hair or short?

In the case of the Dominic and Abby Maryk, two siblings from Winnipeg that were recently found living with their father in Mexico almost four years after they disappeared in August 2008, Janes' work on age-progession photos is startlingly accurate.

Age progression images of Abby and Dominic Maryk, missing since 2008 and recently found in Mexico. [Courtesy of Winnipeg Police Service]

Now 11 and 9, the children were reunited with their mother in May after a neighbour recognized the children from a Crime Stoppers-style video circulated via Mexican media.

In this case, the mother had a lot of photos of herself growing up and school photos of the kids, Janes said.

"These are the best scenarios, if parents have kept those photos of themselves," he said of school photos.

A father himself, Janes said he doesn't remember file numbers, but faces.

"You go through so many images of Christmas, Easter, family get-togethers, birthday parties - you get so close seeing these faces."

Sadly, cases like Steven Carter and the Maryk children are too few and far between. Janes has worked for the child exploitation centre for eight years, as an age progression artist and in victim identification, going over images of abuse and trying to identify victims or clues that will lead to perpetrators, and he's learned to turn to his family to help him cope.

"If you look at it, going it's been 20 years, you can't look at it that way. You're looking at it that every time you do something you push an investigation hopefully closer to being able to find the child," he said.