Putting a computer on the trail of nation's missing children

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Bergen County Sheriff's Department has a new investigator in its Missing Persons Bureau. This detective, a fast worker with a terrific memory, has boosted the department's morale, and helped reduce paperwork in the bureau's no-holds-barred search for missing children.

The department's new recruit is a computer system, which has already saved the bureau hundreds of man-hours and vastly contributed towards finding runaways and other missing children.

The system was donated by TRW Inc., which plans to equip another 20 missing-person bureaus across the country with reconditioned but sophisticated computers.

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''The new computer will enable us to process days of paper work in just a few minutes,'' says Bergen County Sheriff William McDowall.

Even with such technological aid, however, the fight to find missing children remains a formidable one. According to the US Health and Human Services Administration, some 1.5 million children are reported missing every year. More than 20,000 don't return home within that same year.

Recognizing the need for a single government agency to aid in the search for missing children, President Reagan signed into law on Oct. 12 the Missing Children Act. The law mandates the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take a more active role in this nationwide problem.

Specifically, the law for the first time permits parents of missing children to ask the FBI directly whether or not state or local law enforcement authorities have entered their children's names into the National Crime Information Center's (NCIC) missing persons computer. At present, some 60,000 local law enforcement agencies have access to the information in the NCIC computer. But in the past, many local police departments have either not bothered to enter the names, or told parents they have done so when they haven't.

''It's something that nobody really has cared about in law enforcement,'' says Bergen County Undersheriff Gary Garabedian. ''The police look at it as a kind of noncriminal activity. Some youngster leaves the house and everyone presumes they will be back in a period of time. Unfortunately, that's often not the case. Everybody says they have a budget problem and they are too busy with burglaries and robberies and other things.''

''Everybody'' doesn't include Sgt. Richard Ruffino, head of the Bergen County Missing Persons Bureau. In signing the Missing Children Act, President Reagan singled out Sergeant Ruffino's work as prototype for other areas of the country.

During the last six years, Ruffino compiled a national file of some 30,000 missing persons, mostly children. Although only responsible for Bergen County, Ruffino has become a nationally recognized expert.

When Ruffino's brother-in-law, a technician with TRW, suggested he cross-index his massive files on computer, Ruffino called the company to see what help it could offer. Not only did the company donate the system, but TRW employees also volunteered to enter Ruffino's missing person data into the computer after hours.

TRW spokesman David Gill stresses the computer's limitations, however. ''There's no computer in the world can eliminate the intuitive nature of police work.''

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