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Missing children

By Lucille deViewto The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1982

Tampa, Fla.

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.''

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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.

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.