ONE of the most heart-rending issues of the past decade - missing children - has undergone a quiet transformation. Instead of the near-hysteria that characterized the early 1980s, when media reports hyped inflated statistics, more reasonable attitudes prevail.
And instead of a scattershot approach to reporting and investigating cases, laws and national networks have adopted a unified approach that has increased the chances of finding children.
"If you think about 10 years ago and think about today, the changes are dramatic," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va. "When a child disappears in America today, there is now a national system in place for exchanging information instantly and transmitting it around the country."
Recently, as missing-children agencies observed the 10th annual Missing Children's Day, Mr. Allen assessed the progress he and other advocates have made. In the early 1980s, he says, "You couldn't get missing-children information entered into the FBI's database." Then the Missing Children's Act, passed a decade ago, established procedures enabling parents of missing children to file information with the FBI so it can be fed into the bureau's National Crime Information Computer.
Ten years ago, most police departments stipulated a waiting period of 48 to 72 hours before a child over the age of 10 or 11 could be reported missing. "The attitude was, `The kid's a runaway. Call me if he doesn't show up in two or three days,' " Allen says. Now reports can be entered immediately. Ten years ago, he adds, no state clearinghouses existed. Today there are 42, plus one in the District of Columbia.
People had no central telephone number to call a decade ago if they thought they had a lead. Today the national center, a nonprofit agency mandated by Congress, receives more than 600 calls daily. Many of those are tips or sightings that lead to the safe recovery of a child.
Other agencies also offer nationwide hot lines. Child Find in New Paltz, N.Y., for example, has helped locate more than 2,300 children in the past 13 years, according to executive director Carolyn Zogg.
In the early 1980s, Allen continues, it was "virtually impossible" to get courts to allow young children to testify in these cases. Now laws make it easier to do that, while still protecting children.
Other changes are evident in education programs for children. Earlier efforts emphasized "stranger danger." Today, realizing that most abductions are by noncustodial family members, educators work with children to lessen fear of abduction by strangers. One curriculum developed by the national center, called "Kids and Company Together for Safety," has been used in schools in 29 states. Material appropriate for each grade "is presented in a very positive, upbeat, colorful way," says Rona Zlokower, manager
of community and government relations for Digital Equipment Corporation in Merrimack, N.H., underwriters of the project.
Even the milk-carton photographs of missing children - a national symbol in the 1980s - have disappeared in most areas. "We became concerned that we were creating too much fear at the breakfast table," Allen says. Now post cards asking, "Have you seen me?" go into 54 million homes a week. One out of every 7 children whose photographs appear on the cards is found, Allen says.
Instead of fingerprinting children, a widespread practice a decade ago, the newest tracking efforts involve photographs. "We tried to figure out from 10 years' experience what is the single most valuable thing a parent ought to have, in terms of safety," Allen says. "The answer is a good, clear, full-face photo, or a video. One of the most shocking things to me was that 40 to 50 percent of families of missing children did not have a good photo."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Polaroid Corporation has recently launched a nationwide effort called Project KidCare. It features a red and blue passport-size booklet for children that features space for information and photographs.
When Montgomery Ward conducted a pilot test of the project in its Chicago stores this spring, offering free Polaroid photographs of children, it drew 34,000 children in three weekends. Store executives are now expanding the program to more than 300 Montgomery Ward stores nationwide.
No one, of course, is pretending that the problem of missing children has been solved. Statistics released in 1990 by the US Department of Justice show that there are still as many as 350,000 children a year abducted by other family members, as many as 450,000 runaways, as many as 127,000 children abandoned by their families or kicked out, and about 300 kidnappings.
"We still have a long way to go," says Ivana DiNova, director of the Missing Child Help Center in Tampa. She wants the Missing Children's Act to be adopted by all states. She also points out the need for more police officers trained to deal with these cases.
Allen concurs, explaining that more than half the nation's police departments employ 10 or fewer officers and may not have specific expertise in this area. Still, noting that 70 percent of missing children have been found since 1990, he says, "This is not a gloom-and-doom situation. Most of these kids can be recovered, and most recoveries can be safe."