Interest Lessens, But Problem Remains
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Sallie Crane was broke and emotionally spent, but still she didn’t pull out of the search for missing children until an emotionally disturbed girl whose disappearance she’d been investigating was found murdered.
″I get upset,″ Ms. Crane says now, ″because there are kids out there that I wish I could help.″ But she has closed down Child Watch of Virginia Inc.
Ms. Crane said closing organizations such as hers lessens public attention on the problem of missing children.
But others in similar agencies aren’t so sure. They say the frenzy of worry that followed some highly publicized cases has matured into a concern for the broader issue of children as victims of crime.
″The specific focus of the society through news accounts has definitely changed ... and it is not at the fever pitch that it was a couple of years ago,″ said Jay Howell, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C. The center was set up under the U.S. Department of Justice.
″Despite the short attention span, perhaps of the media, the concern of the average citizen remains very acute on this,″ he said.
Ms. Crane’s voice trembled as she talked about walking away from the organization she started in 1984.
″I had perfect credit going into it and basically I went bankrupt,″ said Ms. Crane, who is now divorced and raising her children on her own.
″You’re looking at a situation where you have to do something for yourself and your own family,″ she said, ″and you have this parent who’s crying, literally crying, to you at 3 in the morning, and what do you do?″
Other grass-roots organizations also have surrendered to financial reality, she said.
Ms. Crane estimated her organization, using her money and funds donated by individuals and civic groups, spent about $50,000 in three years, often acting as a private detective agency in tracking runaways or youngsters taken by non- custodial parents.
Runaways - the biggest part of the problem, according to officials - can end up as the victims of prostitution, drug abuse, pornography or murder.
Fourteen-year-old Tammy Agee failed to return to her group home in Richmond last Aug. 18 after a swimming trip to the James River. Emotionally disturbed, the girl had spent almost her entire life in residential programs and foster homes.
Ms. Crane said police handled it as a case of a disturbed youngster taking to the road of her own will, but she was convinced it was more serious. She paid to print and circulate posters with the girl’s photo and description.
Three weeks later, Tammy’s decomposed body, bound to a tree and gagged, was found near the river.
″It was really the last straw for me,″ Ms. Crane said.
National and state clearinghouses for information on missing children, she said, do not provide the educational outreach needed to get at the source of the problem - troubled homes. The majority of cases involve older children, ages 12 through 17, running away from unbearable home situations.
A small minority involve the abduction of children by strangers, such as depicted in ″Adam,″ a television movie about the kidnapping and murder of a Florida boy that helped focus public concern on the issue.
″If the interest has died down, it’s mostly because you have to have some kind of organization to keep it out in the forefront,″ said Ms. Crane.
Other officials insist there are organizations carrying on the protective work.
The National District Attorneys Association is finishing work on a manual for prosecuting child crime cases. It will be the first such guidebook, said the National Center’s Howell, a former prosecutor in Florida.
He also said the subject of child exploitation is no longer forbidden on prime time television. Several TV series have built episodes around such incidents. ″You can really look at that as a barometer″ of public tolerance, he said.
Five years ago, Howell also noted, there were no states with clearinghouses for information on missing children. Thirty states have such offices today.
In Virginia, the state police since July 1, 1985, have operated the Virginia Missing Children Information Clearinghouse, which currently is following 398 active cases.
Police Sgt. T.W. Turner said the office has handled 2,935 missing children reports since Jan. 1. Of that number, 2,537 children have been located.
″I don’t think people have lost interest in missing children. I think the problem always has been there and all of a sudden it was just awakened like a big monster, and now some of the shock has worn off,″ Turner said.
The office distributes its reports to other states and has a mailing list in Virginia of 2,500 schools, school boards, juvenile courts, social organizations and individuals to whom it distributes fliers with the pictures and descriptions of the children.
The National Center received 475,000 missing children reports last year, compared with 100,000 in 1981, said Howell.
″As awareness increased, a concern developed that we’ve got to exercise some care, because children and parents will become unduly frightened,″ he said.