Magazine article USA TODAY

MIssing Children: A Fearful Epidemic

Magazine article USA TODAY

MIssing Children: A Fearful Epidemic

Article excerpt

Police, legislators, and policymakers must be mobilized to build a network capable of identifying and apprehending offenders who victimize youngsters.

In recent months, the nation has been riveted by news of child abductions in Petaluma, Calif.; Frankfort, N.Y.; Fargo, N.D.; St. Louis, Mo.; and other communities. The stories of Polly Klaas, Sara Wood, Jeanna North, Cassidy Senter, and many others strike fear in the hearts of every parent and have reawakened Americans to the vulnerability of children everywhere.

These cases raise important policy questions. Are they aberrations or part of a consistent and troubling pattern? How great is the problem of missing children? Are average families too fearful or afraid of the wrong things?

In 1979, child psychologist Robert L. Geiser wrote Hidden Victims, with a premise that youngsters were being victimized in many ways and somehow America had missed it. In the introduction, he noted, "social problems have an uncanny ability to survive most attempts to remedy them. Their first line of defense is to hide from public awareness and then later to spring onto the scene as full-blown crises."

Thanks to the outrage provoked over the past decade by such young victims as Etan Patz of New York, Adam Walsh of Florida, Johnny Gosch of Iowa, Ann Gotlib of Kentucky, and Jacob Wetterling of Minnesota, missing, abducted, and exploited children became a national issue. In 1982, Rep. Paul Simon (D.-Ill.) and Sen. Paula Hawkins (R.-Fla.) spearheaded the Missing Children's Act, enabling the entry of missing child information into the FBI's national crime computer (NCIC). In 1990, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) and Rep. Ben Erdreich (D.-Ala.) took the effort one step further with the National Child Search Assistance Act, mandating an immediate police report and NCIC entry.

What was the impact? In 1982, there were 154,341 missing person reports in NCIC; in 1993, 868,345. The FBI estimates that 85-90% involved kids.

In 1984, Congress passed the Missing Children's Assistance Act, mandating a national resource center to address child abduction and exploitation. Thus, the private, nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) was born, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice, to find missing children and prevent child victimization. Since 1984, NCMEC has handled 700,000 calls through its 24-hour hotline (1-800-THE-LOST); trained 126,000 professionals; disseminated 7,600,000 publications; worked 36,000 of the most serious, most long-term missing child cases; and played a role in the recovery of 24,000 youngsters.

State legislatures have been active and aggressive in the campaign to protect children. In 1982, there was one state missing children clearinghouse. Today, there are 43, as well as dozens of new laws addressing the rights of victims and witnesses, and increasing penalties and targeting offenders who victimize kids.

In 1984, experts agreed that there was an enormous problem. Yet, there were no data, common definitions, or mandate to report or enter those reports into NCIC. There also was evidence that the media spotlight on the most extreme, outrageous acts against children defined the situation for millions of families.

Survey research revealed not only high public awareness, but disproportionate fear of the most extreme acts. In 1987, Roper found that 76% of children "feared being kidnapped," the number-one concern among kids. In 1988, Peter Hart found that the second greatest perceived risk of parents regarding their children was "being kidnapped" (37%). In 1990, Gunnar Stickler, et al. of the Mayo Clinic found that 72% of parents feared "that their child will be kidnapped by a stranger."

Key to this disproportionate fear of stranger abduction was perception. Parents saw the publicity, identified with the affected families, and felt "there but for the grace of God go I, or my child. …

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