The missing child is one of the most moving images in human affairs. Television and other media recently have brought this image home vividly to Americans.
Fortunately, some progress is being made against this challenge: The abduction - and loss - each year of thousands of children by strangers, some of whom are sex offenders. But more and faster action is needed.
The progress thus far takes several forms: FBI listings, parental involvement , preventive steps.
In the past year more police departments are listing with the FBI the identities of abducted children, thus permitting police across the US to know which children are missing, no matter where they live. (Even then, however, it is very hard for police to find children who've been abducted.) By one study, the number of children reported missing since last spring has thus increased by 25 percent. This increase probably stems largely from a one-year-old law that facilitates the reporting of missing children to the FBI. Passage of the law was spurred by the parents of Adam Walsh, a child abducted and slain and the subject of a TV docu-drama earlier this month.
In recent years several other parents of missing children also have turned their personal grief into help for others, by forming or working for volunteer groups that track missing children and by alerting the public to the problem through appearances on TV shows.
And the public is becoming more aware. Many more Americans now are asking what they can do to help. Many individual law-enforcement officers are demonstrating deep concern over missing children, often spending hours of off-duty time trying to solve cases.
Some organizations are taking specific steps to help children recognize and avoid circumstances that could lead to abduction. Just this month Camp Fire began a nationwide program to enable its kindergarten and first-grade members to identify potentially harmful situations. One segment concerns dealing with strangers.
Yet when an abduction does occur, parents still confront serious challenges as they seek to regain their child. One is that, unless there is virtual proof of kidnapping the local police force is largely on its own as it endeavors to find out who took the child and where he or she now is. It is a task for which police forces are overmatched.
The FBI is not empowered to act as a national police force and conduct nationwide searches, even for missing children, nor is it adequately staffed to do so.
Several voluntary agencies help keep track of missing and found children. Probably the best known is Child Find, of New Paltz, N.Y., which has aided in locating several hundred missing children.
There is no agreement on how many children are missing. The most commonly used figures are that 50,000 children are abducted annually by strangers, 5,000 turn up alive and 5,000 dead, and the remaining 40,000 are never heard from again. (An additional 100,000 children are abducted by parents in custody cases.) However, the FBI and some persons in the field feel the accuracy of these figures has not been proven.