Atlanta — In a black neighborhood in southeast Atlanta, Mildred Montgomery, mother of five, stands in the open doorway of her public housing apartment. After a rain, the red Georgia clay has turned into mud just beyond the cement step of her porch.
But her children, ranging in age from 8 to 19, are not getting muddy; they are inside, as they are most days after school. "They really don't have any place to go," she explains. "I mostly keep mine in the house."
It is not only the tragic series of 20 unsolved murders of black children here in the past 20 months that led her to try to keep her children close at hand. She has always tried to do so.
But not all mothers do -- or can. Many work and are not home when the children come back from school. One of Mrs. Montgomery's daughters, Jackie, says she sees "a lot of them [children] out on the street." The need for a safe place for kids to go when not in school is "real bad," says Mrs. Montgomery.
Both local and national black leaders hope that out of Atlanta's tragedy will come a new national concern for the pressing needs and "vulnerability" of so many children across the United States.
"This is not just a problem for Atlanta; this is a problem for the whole country," says Atlanta Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown.
"There is a tremendous amount of abuse and misuse of children around the country," Commissioner Brown said in a joint interview with The Christian Science Monitor, a reporter from Dallas, and one from Holland.
Nationally, 2,746 persons under age 20 were murdered in 1979, according to the FBI. (That was an increase from 2,444 in 1975.) The greatest number murdered in 1979 (1,866) were ages 15 to 19. There were 499 murders of children under age 5.
The FBI was unable to report readily on the cause of death by age. Children's murders have not usually been in the limelight, said one FBI official.
Atlanta's crimes have changed that.
"It's unfortunate it takes a tragedy to awaken America to the underlying conditions to the tragedy," Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said here recently. He cited drug use by youth, child abuse, child pornogoraphy, as national problems.
Another national black leader, Joseph Lowery, head of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference says the murders here redirect US attention to "a world it seems to have forgotten: poverty."
The murdered black children came from poor families. Many of the victims spent a good deal of time on the street, trying to earn a little money recycling cans, running errands or selling things. Their lives illustrate the "vulnerability" of children, says Dr. Lowery.
Not all of the vulnerability occurs outside the home. While following up tips in the child murder cases, Atlanta police have uncovered and made "a lot more arrests" in cases of child molesting unrelated to the murders, said Commissioner Brown.
City officials are hoping to enroll some 75,000 children in city recretional programs this summer, an increase of 25,000 from last year. Private groups will be asked to expand their programs.
City swimming pools and other supervised facilities will remain open longer hours if additional funds are available. But federal cuts in Comprehensive Employment and Training Act will leave funding for only about 3,000 youth jobs this summer compared to a high of 9,000 four years ago, says Angelo Fuster, city hall spokesman.
Nearly $1 million in federal funds has been made available to Atlanta, however, for expansion of after-school and other programs.