Efforts stepped up to guard against more slayings of Atlanta children

Deep concern over the still-unsolved murders of 15 black children here since mid-1979 has not given way to a feeling of helplessness. The latest victim, 14-year-old Lubie Geiter, was found in a wooded area near here Feb. 5, just two weeks after the discovery of another child's body. Two missing children are also part of the investigation.

On two levels -- public and private -- there are signs of increasing determination to solve the murders and minimize the risk of further tragedy. Federal assistance to Atlanta's investigation of the murders is being increased, under the coordination of Vice-President George Bush.

Several computer experts skilled in analyzing a myriad of tips and leads for a pattern will be sent soon to Atlanta by the US Justice Department. Some 26 FBI agents had previously been assigned to work with Atlanta's 35-member police task force. A city request for additional FBI help is being studied, says Mr. Bush.

At the same time, adults in Atlanta's black communities are signing up in droves for a program known as Block Parents.

Once languishing with only about 50 volunteers, the enrollment of Block Parents has jumped to more than 3,000, "sparked by the murders," says Carolyn Crowder, immediate past president of the Atlanta Council of Parents Teachers Associations.

A block parent is an adult approved by the police department who is available to response to a child's emergency needs during at least part of the day. The volunteer, who need not be a parent, puts a sign up in his or her window to let children on the street know when he or she is at home.

Emergencies can include accidents, being locked out of their home, or being followed or approached by a stranger. It is thought that many of the murdered children were snatched during after-school hours.

Some churches and local organizations have begun or expanded their after-school programs for young children.

Many thousands of the 72,000 children in the Atlanta public school system do not have a parent at home when they arrive after school, says Mrs. Crowder. Many are from single- parents families where the mother works, she explains.

She would like the Atlanta School Board to begin after-school tutoring and recreational programs in the city's elementary schools. These could be staffed by high school students who would earn academic credit, she says. The school board is "listening" to the idea, she says, but has made no commitments.

Meanwhile, school and mental health officials report increased signs of fear among some students, especially younger children. School officials have distributed brochures on how parents can help minimize such fears.

Henry Braddock, a county mental health official here, says the tragic murders have brought attention to problems within many families. Some families have begun to realize that there are few family-oriented events in their home and that "people kind of run in and out" on their own, he says.

Some patterns in the killings are emerging. Several of the murdered children spent their last known hours trying to earn money (in one case some 20 miles from home) -- collecting redeemable bottles or cans, or running an errand for a few pennies. The murders have centered on low-income neighborhoods. All the victims were black; all but two were male. No racial motivation is apparent: In fact, two boys nearly snatched say their assailant was black.

Atlanta's City Council has imposed a 7 p.m. curfew on children under 15. A sponsor of the ordinance admits it would seem to do little to prevent further murders, since most of the premurder kidnappings are likely to have occurred during daylight hours. But, the reasoning goes, it may help parents have more control over their children.

Several people contacted in different parts of the predominantly black communities here said that while many children appear to be obeying the curfew, many are not.

The Monitor has learned that some of the FBI agents assigned to the case have had prior experience in other multiple-child homicide cases.

The first of the 15 murders was discovered in July 1979. As the number of victims increased, their families complained that they could not get much attention from the police.

Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown insists that regular homicide investigations were adequate until a task force was formed in mid-1980. At first only five persons were assigned to the task force.

In recent months, Mayor Maynard Jackson has repeatedly criticized the federal government for not offering more financial and other help in the invest igation.

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