Concern over child abductions has increased sharply in recent months. Experts estimate that between 4,000 and 20,000 youngsters are lured away by strangers each year. Those numbers represent only a small fraction of the total number of missing children, which is put as high as 1.5 million, most of whom are either runaways or offspring abducted by a divorced parent. But numbers aside, the children seized by strangers are at the heart of the missing-child issue, since those children are nearly always abused, both physically and emotionally. And specialists point out that any child, from infants up to the age of 16 or 17, can be vulnerable to abduction.
Last June saw the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C. Its main purpose is to support new legislation that will protect children and to share information concerning missing children that might contribute to their recovery.
A large number of agencies, including the FBI, have become increasingly involved in solving these cases. Programs have also sprung up to address the question of preventing child abductions. Their methods vary, but most unite on a key theme: Children can be taught to resist, and therefore prevent, their own abduction.
A number of books, films, and programs are available that seek to teach children and parents how a child can react in a preventive way when approached by an adult intent on abduction. Two nationwide programs that pursue this approach are examined in depth below. `Strong kids, safe kids' film
One individual involved in bringing this type of education to the public is Ron Berger of Portland, Ore. Mr. Berger is president of National Video, a chain of some 400 family entertainment video stores in the United States and Canada. He has called Jan. 21 through 24 ``Operation Safe Child Week.'' During this time his stores have been lending a 43-minute tape entitled ``Strong kids, safe kids'' to any customer free of charge.
``Our stores are family oriented,'' says Mr. Berger. ``We cater to children. We see 300,000 people a week. We have nationally advertised this [promotion] in TV Guide in the US and Canada. We're in an excellent position to do this.''
The Paramount video film, which normally sells for $29.95 and rents for from $3 to $5 a night, was produced by and stars Henry Winkler. He appears in it both as himself and as ``The Fonz,'' the TV character especially popular with children. Dr. Sol Gordon, professor of child and family studies at Syracuse University and author of books on child rearing and child safety, and Kee MacFarlane of the Children's Institute International in Los Angeles, also contributed to the writing of the film. Both appear on camera as well. Other performers and TV cartoon characters familiar to children contribute to its gentle, upbeat mood.
The film is aimed at children and adults alike, and children and parents are encouraged to watch it together. Its main emphasis is on calmly and firmly explaining to children how to protect themselves from abduction and from the sexual abuse that usually follows it.
``Strong kids, safe kids'' explains how children can say ``No!'' when approached by an adult who may try to trick them into getting into a car or accepting sexual advances. It urges children to ``tell someone you trust'' if such advances are made. It also urges parents to be ``askable'' -- to listen to their children on these often painful and embarrassing subjects, and never to let a child feel that sexual advances by an adult need be tolerated, or that they are somehow the child's fault.
``Our stores offered the tape to schools for free,'' says Mr. Berger. ``We know they're using it. Store owners talked about the response of schools to this film, and we saw that we could do something to make the public more aware of it. We decided we have the locations to be able to do something bigger than just rent the tape.''
In addition to a night's free rental of the tape mentioned above, customers can have a videoprint of their children made. ``Police have told us that nothing is better than videoprinting,'' says Mr. Berger. ``Here is an opportunity for a police department to see the missing child. We'll have information available at stores about abduction. Any parent who calls [Jan. 21 week] can make reservations to rent the tape free of charge at another time. Corporately we will donate any royalties connected with these activities to the National Hide and Seek Foundation [in Cornelius, Ore.]. We expect to fingerprint and videoprint over half a million kids -- about 1,200 to 1,250 per store.
``The film has been endorsed and recommended by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Committeee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. And we have received a commendation from the White House for this effort.'' The Adam Walsh Center Program
When teaching children to be aware of potential danger, the question arises as to whether the children will become unduly fearful as a result of this instruction. But Nancy McBride, program coordinator at the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., feels that educating children to protect themselves from adults will not make them nervous or distrustful.
``We use a `fire-drill' approach,'' says Ms. McBride. ``You don't have to tell a child what will happen if he is stranger-abducted. You can tell a child: `I'm teaching you these things so that you can be safe.' You don't have to burn a child's hand to teach him not to play with matches. Go in with a positive, uplift manner. You don't have to have paranoid, scared kids running around.''
In 1983, the Adam Walsh center developed a slide and audio cassette presentation, which they make available to schools. The center also seeks to change legislation concerning child abduction and provides information and referral services on missing children.
``The best thing is to teach prevention,'' Ms. McBride insists. ``To teach kids how to respond to lures. The abductor or molester is very sneaky. They may use the lure of live animals, which few children can resist.''
One of the slides in the Adam Walsh program depicts a man offering a child video games and ice cream to lure him into a car. This was the ploy reportedly used to abduct 11-year-old Robert Smith, who was recovered earlier this month in Rhode Island, almost two years later and 3,000 miles from his California home.
According to many experts, a child can actually prevent his own abduction by refusing to comply with the request or demands of a stranger. Force is seldom used in the actual abduction process, experts find.
``A child abductor is usually an ineffectual personality looking for love and trust,'' says Nancy McBride. ``Child molesters do it for power and affection -- to get a child to look up to them and trust them.
But ``kids are learning,'' she believes. ``They're not being conned. We're seeing less naivet'e.''
And she reiterates a theme that many consider a major part of the problem: the fear of communication on the question of sex that may cause a child to inadvertently protect his assailant.
She warns, ``If your child gives you some clues [that he has been approached or sexually abused], listen -- don't slough it off. A child should know his parents love him and that he can tell them anything. Most children are molested before the offender is caught because children are afraid to tell about these crimes. If parents are open in these instances, that could make all the difference.''
Another advocate of child education as a preventive tool in this area is Inspector Seth Goldstein of the district attorney's office in San Jose, Calif.
``We're promoting a lot of programs in schools,'' he says. ``We're teaching kids that they have the capability of saying `No.' We need to bring this question [of sexual molestation of children] out of the dark, gloomy shadows. We need to give kids knowledge. The key is education, and also to lock up the people who do this. A child molester is very likely to commit the crime again.
``Most children often go willingly, unaware of what they're getting into. It's very uncommon where you rip a kid off the street, but kids need to be aware of both types of possibilities. We must give them the weapon to protect themselves: knowledge. We have seen the fruits of this education.
``What has to be done is to do it every year. You can't do [a program of dos and don'ts for children] once and expect them to remember it. It has to be repeated throughout their education and reinforced.''