Missing children

By , to The Christian Science Monitor

It was going to be a special day for mother and daughter, a day of errands and then a movie, a day to ''just be together.''

While Lena Scofield, of Citra, Fla., took her driver's test, 12-year-old Dorothy (Dee) Scofield, the youngest of her five children, crossed the road to shop for a birthday gift for her brother, Joe. Mother and daughter would meet when both were done.

They never met. Dee disappeared. Her frantic mother searched everywhere. Yes, Dee had been seen buying a gift. Then -- nothing. That was six years ago. The stricken mother has not seen her little girl since.

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The Scofield family is not alone in its grief.

Every year, an estimated 50,000 children nationwide are criminally abducted while playing in their yards, going to or from school, riding bikes, camping, doing errands, being cared for by baby sitters, doing all the perfectly ordinary things all children do. Many are never heard from again.

(This figure does not include an additional 150,000 children ''snatched'' from one parent by another in custody battles, or the 1.8 million runaways per year.)

Parents have felt alone and frustrated, and at a loss as to how to help one another and find solutions to this horror.

But there now are signs that all this is changing.

Families are banding together to find ways to prevent as many criminal abductions as possible and find missing children more quickly.

Among other things, they are:

* Lobbying for passage of a national Missing Children Act to establish a clearinghouse of information, using a computer to help track missing children and to identify the remains of 5,000 unclaimed bodies found each year, many of which are of children.

* Making joint appearances to testify for legislation and to explain the enormity of the problem to the public. In December, for example, parents Rosemary Kohm, Julie Patz, Camille Bell, and John Walsh appeared before a national symposium in Louisville, Ky., dealing with problems of child pornography, prostitution, abduction, and murder.

* Building a network of support groups to offer comfort and aid to families of missing children.

The special anguish in criminal abductions is the knowledge that they almost always involve foul play, including sexual abuse or exploiting the child through pornography and prostitution.

Despite outpourings of sympathy from outraged communities and compassionate people, parents often find themselves isolated and sometimes even shunned or blamed by the insensitive few. Many parents have had to withstand implications that they were somehow careless, as if a child should never be allowed out of sight.

Such callousness, they say, is hard enough to bear. But even worse is the shock that comes when they turn to the police only to find, all too often, that the immediate and wide-ranging help they expect is not available or not available in time.

Many police departments will not begin to search for a missing child for 24 hours on the presumption that the child will ''turn up'' or that he has deliberately run away. However, in case after case where children have never been found or were found killed or injured, parents say this delay was crucial - that sightings and clues which could have led to victims and abductors came too late. The FBI will not enter a case unless there is a ransom note - proof there has been a kidnapping - or evidence the victim has been transported across state lines. There seems to be no clear mandate for the involvement of national law enforcement agencies. And local police, left with the problem, often lack the manpower or equipment to be effective.

Until recently, many families have had to virtually go it alone, augmenting police searches with their own, often meager resources. They have passed out leaflets, hired private detectives when they could afford to do so, and begged for attention from the local news media. In some cases that attention has been forthcoming. In others, parents were told their problem ''is too common'' to single out one child from the many who are missing in a particular city.

In the past decade, the United States has witnessed many multiple murders of children with little or no attention to the individual child until the numbers began to build - 33 in Chicago; 28 in Atlanta; 27 in Houston; 14 in California; 7 in Detroit.

One of the pioneer support groups that parents of missing or murdered children have begun is the Dee Scofield Awareness Program Inc. (DEE), in Tampa. It was established in 1976 by the victim's aunt, Mrs. Betty DiNova, and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Ivana DiNova.

''We decided we had to do something, even if it was too late to help Dee,'' says Betty DiNova, who conducts the project from her Tampa home. Until recently, when local churches began helping her with telephone bills, printing, and postage costs, all expenses ''came out of our own pockets,'' she says.

The DEE organization, and others like it, compiles data on individual cases from newspaper accounts and referrals from other agencies and individuals; sends out literature and fact sheets to educate the public; provides a checklist of ''things to do when your child disappears''; participates in safety conferences on children and youth; and tries to redress conditions that hamper searches.

DEE urges the elimination of bail and parole for accused child molesters and child murderers, and encourages parents to voluntarily have their children fingerprinted at local police agencies. This is done in Hillsborough County, Fla., by volunteers with training and supervision from the sheriff's department. Under the plan, spearheaded by the Limona Parent Teachers Association, parents keep the fingerprints in a safe place for identification purposes if needed.

(Mandatory fingerprinting of children is opposed by some groups, which see it as an invasion of a child's civil rights.)

One of the newest support groups is the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It grew out of a voluntary group that has provided child advocacy in the area for almost a decade.

One of the center's first activities was to establish and maintain a computer file of missing children from information supplied by the Broward sheriff's office. There are 150 cases at present.

The Adam Walsh Child Resource Center has a paid staff and operates under a federal grant from the Juvenile Justice Department.

John and Reve Walsh serve on the board. The Walshes did much to bring the missing-children issue to national attention with their appearances on network TV shows during the two-week search for their murdered only child, Adam.

The Walshes are spearheading a drive for passage of a Federal Missing Children Act, introduced in the Senate (S1701) by Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida and the House (HR 3781) by Paul Simon (D) of Illinois). Hearings have been held in both chambers.The proposed legislation would require the FBI to maintain a national computer information network to assist law enforcement agencies in locating and identifying missing childen and other individuals. This bill covers all missing children including runaways and those who are kidnapped or who are victims of parental abduction. There is no restriction on how long the child must be missing before authorities can act. In addition, the bill would set up a national clearinghouse for information about bodies found without identification.

The bill is pending before subcommittees and awaiting further comment from the Justice Department on proposed amendments. Senator Hawkins hopes the bill will come before both houses before the August recess.

The FBI has objections to the bill but is working with Senator Hawkins's staff to iron out differences. The FBI is concerned that worried parents will come directly to it and fail to contact local police. However, an amendment to the bill allows parents to list a child in the FBI Missing Persons File only after contacting local police and if police fail to list the child.

FBI spokesmen point out that a nationwide Missing Persons File has actually existed since 1975. But they stress that their Missing Persons File is for distributing information only. There is a misapprehension among parents, they say, that once notified, the FBI will begin an investigation. But the FBI has no jurisdiction in missing-child cases unless there is evidence of an abduction. The problem, as they see it, is that the existing system has not been utilized.

According to Senator Hawkins only about 10 percent of the missing children are entered by local law enforcement agencies in the National Crime Information Center computer.

As a further step, the FBI says, it now supports establishing an unidentified dead file.

John Walsh says: ''We are not asking for a national police force to search for every missing child. We are just asking for a centralized system and that the FBI assist, whenever possible, when a sighting of a child is out of state and the local police can't follow up that lead. It's not too much to ask of this great society.''

Julie Patz, whose son, Etan, disappeared on his way to his school bus stop in Manhattan, didn't know for six hours that he had never boarded his bus. She would like to see an attendance reporting system so parents would be notified at once if their children did not reach school.

Parents of missing children are pressing hard for the Missing Children Act to become law. They point out that whenever a car, a boat, or other possessions are reported stolen anywhere in the country, a description is circulated nationwide almost at once.

Why, they ask, can't the same be done for missing children?

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