Coming up: two intelligent - and sobering - documentaries. ABC probes foster care; Wiseman films ICBMs

Crimes Against Children: Failure of Foster Care ABC, tonight, 10-11. Anchor: Rebecca Chase. Executive producer: Av Westin. Senior producer: Ray Nunn. Missile PBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings for day and time). Producer/director/editor: Frederick Wiseman. Cameraman: John Davey.

In the midst of network TV's summer doldrums, two extraordinary documentaries - one on the people who control America's nuclear arsenal, the other on the United States' tangled foster-care system - make pushing the ``on'' button worthwhile.

Tonight's ``Crimes Against Children'' on ABC is actually a follow-up on an award-winning 1979 program, ``Nobody's Children.'' That ABC News ``Closeup'' investigated the foster-care system in the US and discovered scandalous abuses and widespread lack of supervision. Now ``Crimes Against Children'' revisits the system to see how things have improved.

But unfortunately, anchor Rebecca Chase reports that they have not improved. In fact, this documentary tells a horror story. It is an excruciating recital of the experiences of innocent children - unloved, abused, molested, murdered.

It is loaded with startling figures:

Some 450,000 American children will spend some time in foster care this year.

Last year, three children a day in the US died as the result of abuse.

Nearly 3 million children have been added to the poverty rolls over the past decade.

Since 1980, reports of child abuse and neglect have increased nearly 90 percent, to 2.5 million per year.

Rates of abuse for children in foster-care homes is 10 times as great as for children in the general population.

But what will concern viewers most is the case histories - the unrelenting glimpses of abused children crying out for help. And nearly as jolting are the comments of foster-care workers, explaining that unrealistic caseloads and cumbersome regulations make it impossible for them to do a competent job.

Why is the population of children in foster homes increasing so rapidly? The documentary offers these answers: an increase in child abuse, unwed pregnancies, poverty, homelessness, AIDS, and drug addiction. The danger to the children, the filmmakers found, does not always lie in unsupervised foster homes; often it is greatest when children are returned to previously neglectful parents. As Ms. Chase points out: ``In most states, the law says that every reasonable effort must be made to rehabilitate the parent and reunite the family. But the problem is that the laws which safeguard parents' rights often fail to protect children.''

While the program attempts to pinpoint some solutions, it is far better at exposing the problems - as is the case with society in general. The filmmakers do manage, however, to spotlight a few new programs that are cost-effective and offer real hope. In general, they are programs designed to strengthen families, thus preventing children from being sent to foster homes in the first place.

Yale University runs a program with a counseling team that offers economic and psychological advice to families in trouble. The cost is just about half of what regular foster care would run. In New Jersey and a few other states, there are workshop programs to train and provide emotional support to new foster parents.

But Chase reports that ``the recent congressional hearings concluded that, without more leadership from Washington and more accountability from the states, the shame that is the foster-care system will continue.'' She asks for new ways to open up the foster-care system to scrutiny without violating confidentiality. And, while someone forges a plan for overhauling the whole foster-care system, she calls for ``more foster parents, adoptive parents, court advocates, and just plain friends'' in the meantime.

Perhaps one of her most valid observations: ``At the root of the problem are the parents who have children for whom they can't or won't be responsible.... Shouldn't we demand more of parents?''

``Crimes Against Children'' demands more of everybody.

In ``Missile,'' airing on PBS tomorrow, veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman creates an equally disturbing exploration of quite a different topic - the weaponskeepers of the nuclear age.

It does not frighten viewers with melodramatic scenes of atomic holocaust, nuclear winter, East-West confrontations. Instead it merely documents the step-by-step training of the intelligent, responsible, sincere, and likable men and women who have their fingers on the controls of the US nuclear arsenal.

Filmed mostly at the Vandenberg Air Force Base training school in California for the officers who man the launch control centers of the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, this is the latest in Mr. Wiseman's series of v'erit'e r'ealit'e records of American institutions. As in his other films - ``Titicut Follies,'' ``Essene,'' ``Canal Zone,'' and most recently ``Deaf and Blind'' - Wiseman's method is to provide a flow of seemingly unfocused situations, none of which, taken alone, has a special effect on the viewer. But when viewed as a whole, they create an image of enormous and lasting impact. The viewer feels he has not only seen; he has experienced.

``Missile'' presents viewers with more training details than they might like - lectures on the moral and military aspects of modern warfare, the technical elements of ICBMs, safety procedures to prevent nuclear accidents and detect tampering, trainee study and recreation, religious services, and even the mock launching of a nuclear warhead.

The documentary is not an attack on the US military; as a matter of fact, it seems to take pains to record the great lengths to which the Air Force goes in order to guard against errors that might result in loss of life. And it shows a great deal of sensitivity on the part of the military personnel here to the awesome responsibilities of handling nuclear weaponry. The officers selected for training and their instructors appear to be of high moral caliber. But the calmness, responsibility, and intelligence with which they face the potential destruction of our civilization is what makes ``Missile'' so unnserving; it brings home that nuclear war could really happen.

With this film, Wiseman continues his unique obsession to force viewers to experience - and reevaluate - American institutions at first hand.

If ``Missile'' does nothing but make viewers think more about our acceptance of nuclear ``deterrence,'' it will have performed a universal public service.

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