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Federal Laws, Volunteer Groups Aid Parents in Their Search

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Under the Missing Children Act, signed into law last October by President Reagan, parents can place information about their children--including fingerprints--into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's national crime-information computer.

The computer, which contains a national compilation of information on missing children, alerts police in jurisdictions across the country to missing-child cases and also lists more than 5,000 unidentified bodies found each year.

The Missing Children Act was lobbied for by the parents of Adam Walsh, who disappeared in a Hollywood, Fla., shopping mall and was found dead two weeks later. The efforts of John and Reve Walsh to win passage of the bill in the Congress were dramatized in last week's NBC-tv production, "Adam."

The Federal Parent Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1980 provides government support for a parent whose child has been kidnapped by a separated or divorced spouse. The act requires that all states obey the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act honoring custody orders from other states; expands the use of the federal parent-locator service, which tracks down parents through such records as employment papers and tax returns, to include states; and authorizes the fbi under the Fugitive Felon Act to help local jurisdictions find a child-stealing parent for whom a state has issued an arrest warrant.

But some who have been involved in missing-child cases argue that the Parent Kidnapping Act is difficult to enforce and has enough loopholes to allow an offender to escape prosecution by taking a child to another state.

If a child has lived in a new state for six months, if one parent has a "significant connection"--such as a business or a second residence--with the new state, or if it is in the "best interests" of the child, the act stipulates that the child should stay in the new state, according to John Edward Gill, presi-dent of Children's Rights of New York Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides free counseling and referral services. Mr. Gill is the author of the book Stolen Children.

In addition, since only some of the 50 states consider parental kidnapping a felony, the act is not applicable to all states, Mr. Gill points out. And because child-stealing often occurs before a custody hearing takes place, the Kidnapping Prevention Act is often inapplicable, he notes.

"We should try to make it a federal crime for a parent to conceal a child with or without a custody order for more than 30 days," Mr. Gill says.

Federal legislation pending in a Senate committee includes proposals to: grant jurisdiction to district courts to enforce the custody order of a state court if a child abducted by a parent is transported to another state; establish penalties for a parent who transports a child with the intent to violate the child-custody order; and establish penalties for intentionally restraining a child in another person's custody, according to a spokesman for Senator Paula Hawkins, Republican of Florida; Senator Hawkins sponsored the Missing Children Act in the Senate and has been active in working for stronger missing-children laws.

Parents' Options

There are also organizations that help parents find their children, through media appeals, newsletters, poster campaigns, and other means.

Thousands of parents each year turn to Child Find, a national volunteer organization founded in 1980 by Gloria Yerkovich, whose daughter was kidnapped by Ms. Yerkovich's husband in 1975. Child Find has offices in New Paltz, N.Y.

For a $60 registration fee, a photograph of the missing child is printed in the organization's Directory of Missing Children, which is circulated to law-enforcement agencies, schools, libraries, and media, and one of the private investigators who work with Child Find is assigned to the case, according to Sherry Schindler, assistant to the information director of Child Find. Parents can actively help search for their child, Ms. Schindler said, "and it's up to the parent to [actually] recover the child."

Child Find, which receives approximately 50 to 100 calls a day, has been successful in locating 590 children since its beginning three years ago, according to Ms. Schindler.

The Adam Walsh Child Resource Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a private, nonprofit corporation founded by Mr. and Mrs. Walsh to help other parents whose children are missing, provides information on child safety, fingerprinting, and court monitoring of child-molestation cases. In addition, the group works to change child-protection laws and to ensure that children are aware of how to protect themselves.

Children's Rights of Florida, located in Pinellas Park, Fla., is a one-year-old volunteer organization that has located and recovered more than 50 children in the U.S. and Canada, according to its executive director, Kathy Rosenthal. "We try to fill the gap and try to help parents where no one else seems to be able to help them," Ms. Rosenthal explained of her group's work to organize poster campaigns and locate children through private investigators. The group does not charge for its services, according to Ms. Rosenthal, but is funded by community support and grants.

The Dee Scofield Awareness Program Inc. in Tampa, Fla., will provide interested individuals with information on organizing block-parent programs to ensure neighborhood safety; absentee-reporting systems in which school officials alert parents when children are absent; and voluntary fingerprinting sessions.

Find-Me Inc. is an organization started by John and Louise Clinkscales of La Grange, Ga., who spent five years searching for a missing son. The group publishes a list of organizations and individuals working on the missing-children problem.--ab

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