AS recent tragic events clearly show, reports of missing children are often cases that law-enforcement officials and communities as a whole need to handle in as thorough and evenhanded a manner as possible.
A newly issued Justice Department manual on missing- and abducted-child investigations urges that police consider all possible scenarios from the start, including kidnapping by either family members or unrelated people, and the possibility that the child has run away.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents assisting in the Union City, S.C., case that has received national attention in recent days used advance copies of this manual to coordinate their efforts, according to the Justice Department.
This led them to undertake a quiet investigation of Susan Smith at the same time they were following up her allegation that her car, with her two young sons in it, had been taken by a carjacker. Mrs. Smith is now in custody and has been charged with murdering the two boys.
``The South Carolina case was a model response,'' Ron Laney, the Justice Department official who oversaw the manual's creation, told the Associated Press.
This does not mean the public should discount the pleas of distraught parents who claim their offspring have been taken.
In cases of child homicides that were initially reported as kidnappings by strangers, the parents turned out to be responsible for the killings only 12 percent of the time, according to a study of 200 such cases by the Virginia-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Another tenet of the Justice Department's new guidelines is that police should take reports of missing children seriously. This is the prescribed response even though many of the children involved in such cases turn out to have run away.
The vast majority of actual abductions - upwards of 95 percent -
involve a parent who is estranged from their partner and takes their own child away.
But such statistics should not lead to relaxed vigilance. In a recent Washington, D.C., case that received extensive local publicity, police declined to quickly investigate a mother's allegation that her 11-year-old boy had been taken from their poor Anacostia neighborhood.
Department rules held that the allegation could not be taken up until a few days had passed. This delay was meant to screen out cases of runaway children who would quickly return on their own.
In fact, the boy had been kidnapped by a man convicted in the past of sexual abuse. He was found, unharmed, in a wooded area near his home by a group of convicts from a halfway house who had organized themselves into a search committee.
``It is recommended that law enforcement agencies respond to every report of a missing child as if the child is in immediate danger,'' the new Justice Department guidelines state.
By all accounts, police in Union City reacted in a measured way to Susan Smith's charge that a black man had taken her children. African Americans were not caught up in an indiscriminate dragnet.
An innocent black man was not charged with the crime, as occurred in Boston in 1989 when Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife, then blamed a fabricated black assailant.
But by insisting that a black male carried out a crime she herself is charged with, Smith played into America's unresolved racial attitudes and angered blacks across the country.