Atlanta 'coming together' to quell violence against black children

From the continuing anguish here over the murder of 11 ad disappearnce of five other black youths in the past 16 months, has come: * An outpouring of concern that transcends racial, religious, and economic differences.

* Actions by a number of citizen groups to guide parents and childrenin practical steps to take to reduce the risk of further tragedy on the streets.

* One of the nation's most intense criminal investigations to find the killer , or killers.

* Lingering accusations by some of the mothers of the children, and others, that the Atlanta Police Department moved too slowly in gearing up their investigation.

* A glimpse into the world of black ghetto children today.

The tragic events that might have led to racil tensions or confrontations between blacks and police has instead led to cooperation to solve the murders and avoid further ones.

Church groups and civic groups have been organizing programs on safety measures for children. Their message: Know where your child is at all times; instruct him or her never to ride with anyone -- stranger or not -- without parental permission; know your child's friends and how to reach them in an emergency.

White business leaders, among others, have contributed to a reward fund that now totals about $150,000. Thousands of residents, including many whites, have joined in the several organized searches for clues and the remains of victims.

"A lot of good is coming out of this," says Chi Chi Mcgraw, a black businessman helping the bereaved mothers. "This city is coming together."

Almost all of the children came from low-income families in various parts of the city, usually from homes with no fathers. The children range in age from 7 to 15. All but two were boys.

Most of the children were abducted in broad daylight.

Theirs was a world, says Mary Sanford, a black public housing tenant leader here, where children are often left on their own; a world where three-year-olds stand on chairs to stir up food for themselves; a world where they know hunger in spite of food stamps.

It is also a world where children, on the lookout for ways to earn a few pennies, are "easy prey," she says. Children run to traveling merchants who come through in trucks, asking if they can help sell things. Telephone repairmen are surrounded by kids begging some wire to make decorations with.

Some parents of the victims conjecture that the guilty person, or persons, probably worked, sold, or delivered things in the neighborhood -- or perhaps was someone in a uniform the children recognized. Some of the victims were shy and some were newcomers to the neighborhood; thus, they were considered unlikely to approach a stranger.

This world also is one in which it is not unusual for welfare mothers to sit home all day, then send their young children out, alone, late at night (even now) on shopping errands, Mrs. Sanford says.

In many cases, says Mr. McGraw, welfare is tearing family bonds apart -- generation by generation -- with too many children and too much dependency. He says increased efforts for a transition to more job- and "job attitude" training (i.e., developing positive work habits and basic social skills in meeting the public as well as mechanical skills) are needed. Mrs. Sanford calls for more day care to enable additional welfare mothers to work.

A special 35-member police task force now is devoted entirely to trying to solve the cases. But the task force, which began with only five persons, was not formed until July. By then, 11 children either had been murdered or were missing. The first child was murdered in July 1979. The latest was found Nov. 2, and another black teen-ager was reported missing Nov. 13.

Formation of the police task force followed the formation by a number of the bereaved mothers of the Committee to Stop Children's Murders. STOP, as it is know, is trying to get parents and children to use more caution on the streets.

Some of the mothers behind STOP also had long been demanding more police action on their children's cases. Several mothers of murdered or missing children said their contacts with police were minimal until the task force was formed.

"You'd call and they [police] wouldn't answer your calls," says Camille Bell, whose nine-year-old, Yusef, was found murdered last November. He apparently was picked up by someone one Sunday afternoon while running barefoot and shirtless on a shopping errand that would have earned him 17 cents.

Police here are currently responding much more rapidly to calls of missing youth.

Atlanta public safety commissioner Lee P. Brown says he has "no way of conclusively saying" whether one killer or more than one is involved. The cases are difficult (there have been no arrests), he says, because there are no eye witnesses; nor is the motive known.

Would earlier formation of the task force, signaling the start of a top-priority effort, have been useful -- even in retrospect?

Commissioner Brown, in overall charge of the investigation, replies that 60, 000 man-hours of investigation preceded formation of the task force. He declined to speculate whether forming the task force earlier would have had any practical benefits.

And he disagreed with reported criticism of how the task force is operating. "We know what we're doing," he said.

The task force is being aided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (operating on the assumption that the federal kidnapping law has been violated), the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, police from three counties and one nearby suburd, as well as by the five detectives who have helped solve tough homocide cases in other cities.

"I've been told our efforts here are unprecendented," says commissioner Brown. Atlanta may have broken "new ground," setting an example for other cities in times of crisis, he said.

What lessons can come out of these tragedies? Rrplies Brown: that "we are our brothers keeper."

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