Dra­matic progress on miss­ing kids

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Their faces are so oddly fa­mil­iar. Etan Patz. Adam Walsh. Me­gan Kanka. Ja­cob Wetterling. Am­ber Hager­man. Jimmy Ryce. Johnny Gosch.

Their sto­ries, how­ever, are the kind you want to for­get. Th­ese chil­dren were all kid­napped. Some were grue­somely mur­dered. Some are still miss­ing.

Sex preda­tors still stalk the land, but they can no longer do so with to­tal im­punity.

“[T]he progress of the past 25 years has been ex­traor­di­nary,” said Ernie Allen, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren (NCMEC), which marked its 25th an­niver­sary June 13.

Law en­force­ment is bet­ter pre­pared and re­sponds more swiftly and ef­fec­tively, he said. “There’s bet­ter law, bet­ter tech­nol­ogy. Moms and dads are more alert and aware; kids are smarter and more street-smart and savvy about the risks they face.

“There’s a bunch more that needs to be done, but I think that the progress is re­ally en­cour­ag­ing,” said Mr. Allen, not­ing that NCMEC’s miss­ing-chil­dren re­cov­ery rate has grown from 62 per­cent in 1990 to 97 per­cent in 2008.

The cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing miss­ing chil­dren has been dra­matic.

For in­stance, in 1981, af­ter 6year-old Adam Walsh van­ished from a Sears store, his par­ents, John and Reve Walsh, quickly re­al­ized po­lice de­part­ments didn’t talk to each other on miss­ing-chil­dren cases.

More­over, “the Walsh fam­ily dis­cov­ered that it was vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to have miss­ing-child in­for­ma­tion en­tered into the FBI’s na­tional crime com­puter,”


Mr. Allen said. “You could en­ter in­for­ma­tion about stolen cars, stolen guns, all kinds of stolen prop­erty, but not stolen chil­dren.”

Then there were the manda­tory wait­ing pe­ri­ods.

Years ago, “if your child dis­ap­peared, the pre­sump­tion was that, well, he just prob­a­bly ran away,” Mr. Allen said. Po­lice told par­ents if their child “doesn’t show up within 24, 48, 72 hours, call us back and we’ll take a re­port and we’ll in­ves­ti­gate.”

“Well, we now know that in the most se­ri­ous cases — ab­duc­tion-homi­cides — in three-quar­ters of those cases, the child is dead within the first three hours,” he said. Wait­ing pe­ri­ods on miss­ing-child cases were out­lawed in 1990 by the fed­eral Na­tional Child Search As­sis­tance Act.

The NCMEC, opened by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan on June 13, 1984, was de­signed to be a clear­ing­house and nerve cen­ter for miss­ing-chil­dren cases, and it has not ceased to ex­pand its ef­forts. Once dubbed the “milk car­ton peo­ple” be­cause of its novel place­ment of pho­tos of miss­ing chil­dren, such as Man­hat­tan 6-year-old Etan Patz and Des Moines pa­per­boy Johnny Gosch, the NCMEC now has 400 com­pa­nies that help dis­sem­i­nate pho­tos.

The NCMEC also has been in­volved in in­no­va­tions such as photo age-pro­gres­sion, the 1800-THE-LOST hot line, a “cold case unit” to pur­sue old miss­ing-chil­dren cases, and Cy­berTi­pline to take re­ports of sus­pected child sex­ual ex­ploita­tion.

There’s more trou­ble ahead, Mr. Allen told me re­cently. There is a grow­ing ap­petite for child pornog­ra­phy. Chil­dren are be­ing cap­tured and sold for sex. An es­ti­mated 100,000 reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers are free but un­ac­counted for.

Mean­while, the na­tion now rec­og­nizes May 25, the day Etan dis­ap­peared, as Na­tional Miss­ing Chil­dren’s Day. Stores all over Amer­ica know that when a “Code Adam” is sounded, se­cu­rity guards lock the ex­its and look for a child re­ported miss­ing in the store.

Com­mu­ni­ties must be no­ti­fied when sex of­fend­ers move in, thanks to “Me­gan’s Law,” named for Me­gan Kanka, 7, who was raped and mur­dered by a con­victed pe­dophile. All states must have sex-of­fender reg­istries, thanks to a 1994 fed­eral law named for Ja­cob Wetterling, an 11-year-old who was kid­napped on a Min­nesota road and hasn’t been seen since.

Jimmy Ryce, a 9-year-old Florida boy who was ab­ducted, raped and shot when he tried to es­cape his at­tacker, is memo­ri­al­ized with a NCMEC law-en­force­ment train­ing cen­ter.

And around Amer­ica, every­one knows when they see an “Am­ber Alert,” a child has been kid­napped. Sadly, the mon­ster who cap­tured and killed Am­ber Hager­man, the 9-year-old Texas girl who in­spired the emer­gency re­sponse, is still uniden­ti­fied.

Ch­eryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwet­zstein@wash­ing­ton times.com.

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