Should children be fingerprinted? Many communities answer yes

Five-year-old Sean Collins, coaxed by lollipops from the policeman and a stern stare from his mom, finally submits to having his fingerprints and mug shot taken.

Behind him, a half-dozen children and parents mill in the police station hallway, ready for their turn at the ink pads.

In recent weeks, more than a dozen communities across the United States have launched voluntary identification programs for children - which mostly amount to fingerprinting. Some work through the schools, while others, like the one in this western Massachusetts town, are done at the local police station.

The idea is to establish a permanent record of identity to be used if a child is ever snatched away from parents or becomes lost.

The way many parents look at it, the more information on file, the better. Questions of privacy have become secondary.

''It seems like a good, unfortunately necessary, action to take in today's world,'' says Marie Bete, a mother of five who brought her two daughters, ages 11 and 13, to be fingerprinted and photographed in Greenfield.

Critics of the programs, while admitting the motive may be good, raise some sticky legal questions. Who, for instance, ought to hold onto the records - parents or police? If law enforcement officials are allowed to keep fingerprints on file, critics say, they might later be used in criminal investigations.

''Government has a tendency to collect information for one purpose and then turn around and use it for others,'' says Norma Rollins, director of the privacy project at the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has not taken legal action to try to block any of these programs.

With concern growing over the thousands of children who disappear each year, more communities seem eager to establish identification programs of their own. And not just for kids, but also for nursing-home residents and mental patients who sometimes wander away and become lost.

John Troiano, an undersheriff in Union County, N.J., says his office has received calls from as far away as California, Georgia, and Canada since he started fingerprinting children in public and private schools two weeks ago. ''I think you'll see this type of program blossoming out all over the country,'' Mr. Troiano says.

Some communities had programs in place before this year, often as a result of highly publicized kidnappings. Provo, Utah, for example, put together identification packets for more than 1,500 children during a three-day program last summer. The child's fingerprints, blood type, and photo were put on a card and given to the family.

Law enforcement officials point out that many local police stations have long been willing to fingerprint children on an informal basis. But few parents have taken up the offer until now.

''The very notion of fingerprinting was anathema just three or four years ago ,'' says Kristin Cole Brown, spokeswoman for Child Find Inc., a nonprofit national organization that puts out a directory of missing children. ''It's not the concept that has changed, but the perception of need.''

If fingerprinting is to be done on a large scale, civil libertarians insist it must be closely monitored and include some basic elements - such as being totally voluntary and having the prints turned over to the parents.

When given a choice, however, most parents leave the prints with police, rather than take them home. In Greenfield, only three of the more than 100 children processed in the first week of the program had parents who insisted on taking the records.

Another concern has to do with the setting in which the fingerprints are taken. Many observers object to the use of police facilities on the grounds that it frightens children. At the same time, there's concern that school-based programs put subtle pressure on kids not to stick out from the crowd by asking for exemption.

''I prefer keeping it a school issue,'' Ms. Rollins of the New York Civil Liberties Union says. ''The closer you tie it (fingerprinting) to the government , the more it becomes a government monitoring issue.''

The town of Berlin, Conn., a suburb of Hartford, has stirred up opposition from the local ACLU chapter, because town officials insisted on keeping children's fingerprints in police files.

Amid concern by adults, however, the children's reactions to getting their fingerprints taken run the gamut - from screaming two-year-olds who defy even the most patient printmaker to those who enjoy the excitement of the whole affair.

Meanwhile, parents sometimes figure the footprints made when a baby is born serve the same purpose as fingerprints. But fingerprint experts point out that the creases on a newborn baby's foot make them nearly useless only a few months later. Even the fingerprints of babies change by the time they're one year old.

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