SGT. Craig Hill tells children it is the ``uh oh'' feeling, the sense that something is wrong when a stranger asks them questions or tries to get them to go somewhere. ``If you get that uh-oh feeling in your heart,'' he tells children in schools, ``back away, say no, and tell somebody what happened.''
As a result of the widely reported abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, Calif., and two young girls recently near St. Louis, many concerned parents across the country are sighing a deep and sympathetic ``uh oh'' while feeling a heightened sense of fear for their own children.
As a policeman and president of the Lost Child Network in Kansas City, Kan., Sergeant Hill, and other professionals who find missing and abducted children, want parents to know what to do to help children be safe and protected. ``We want parents to understand the dangers,'' Hill says, ``and realize the changes taking place in society. But we say, don't be more frightened; be more careful.''
While millions of American children thrive and are well-cared for, there is a ripple effect of social change today that often brushes against the well-being of all children.
``The estimate today is that parents spend 40 percent less time with their children than parents did 25 years ago,'' says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Arlington, Va. ``It may not be altogether bad,'' he says, ``but the family is different because of economic necessity, and children spend more time with other people.'' About 6 million American children live away from their parents with relatives, neighbors, or in institutions, according to the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
The result is that children now appear to be more vulnerable because they come in contact with more people who could potentially harm them. The stereotypical, worst-case kidnapping - a stranger abducts a child for sexual abuse and/or murder - occurs at the alarming rate of about five a week nationwide. But a child is more often abused or abducted by a family member. According to the only national study done on missing children, a US Department of Justice study in 1988, there were 354,100 family abductions of children that year. Most occurred during a divorce or a custody dispute. Nonfamily abductions of children for criminal purposes numbered between 3,200 and 4,600 children. Since established by Congress in 1984, NCMEC has played a role in the recovery of 23,000 children.
``Parents have to teach kids what not to do,'' Hill says. ``Kids must understand that a stranger can be anybody today, and they cannot get personally involved with someone they do not know regardless of their age or what they say.''
Hill has investigated hundreds of cases of abducted children, many of them committed by men who are pedophiles. ``One guy approached girls in a mall,'' he says, ``and took photos of them. He told them he was doing a photo spread for the department store in the Sunday paper.... That guy killed 35 kids.''
To rescue her four-year-old son, Brian, from an abduction, Maria Stewart, from Long Island, N.Y., did everything she could for three years to keep his name and photo in the public eye. ``Missing kids are not high on the priority of police departments,'' she says, ``so I continually pushed, and got help from organizations like National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Vanished Children's Alliance.''
During a divorce proceeding in 1991, Brian was abducted by his stepfather. In mid-November of this year, a waitress in a diner in Arizona saw the TV program ``America's Most Wanted'' and recognized a photo of Brian. He and his stepfather had been in the diner. Four weeks ago, Arizona police found Brian living in a hotel with the stepfather. Brian hadn't been to school in three years but had not been physically abused. The stepfather was extradited to New Jersey on Dec. 13 and is awaiting arraignment.
``So many people helped me,'' says Ms. Stewart, tearfully. ``The Sara Lee company put Brian's photo on the back of 150 trucks.... And New York Congressman George Hochbrueckner was very supportive.''
Brain, now 7, is back in school in a special-education class. ``For the first two weeks I was so happy, I just stared at him all the time,'' says his mother.
Experts such as Allen and Hill say that preventing child abductions requires improvement in the criminal-justice system. `More and more crimes are being committed by sex offenders who have been paroled two and three times,' Hill says, ``because the prisons are too crowded.''
``For basic American parents,'' Allen says, ``safety boils down to common sense: Talk to your children and listen to them, and know where they are. With the right supervision, the vast majority of young kids will be just fine.''