Missing Children: How "Cause-Related Marketing" Fuels the Scandal
by John Edward Gill
Always mindful of publicity about missing children, and not wanting to miss opportunities for "cause-related marketing," the National Center sometimes promotes cases where children were not missing, but perished from child abuse, accidents, date rape and homicide, or from other causes.
For instance, Christina Holt, 7, was reported abducted by a stranger on October 22, 1994, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Three days later Walsh and film crews from "America's Most Wanted" came down, despite suspicions from local police that the little girl was killed at home by her parents.
"It drives me crazy when police and the media speculate about what might have happened," Walsh said. "The girl is missing and that's all that matters to me."
A day later police found samples of the child's blood in the family home and charged her stepfather and mother with murder. A jury convicted her mother of murder on April 11, 1995, and another jury, in a separate trial, found her husband guilty of murder in December 1996. Both were sent to jail for life.
In a brash act of such "marketing," the National Center dedicated an electronic bulletin board, or kiosk, with videos of missing children to little Christina.
"Today is exactly one year since Christina Holt was reported missing and found murdered," said Nancy McBride, head of the Adam Walsh Center, which is now part of the National Center. "I believe Christina Holt was looking for a safe place in this world. It seems in her short life she didn't find one." She made her remarks at a press conference dedicating that kiosk.
Geraldo Rivera never asked Walsh how a fatal tragedy of child abuse in the home could be called a "lost child" case.
And no reporters asked how a child abuse victim's name could be used on that "missing" child information center, erected in a Florida airport.
In its report to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services in April 1995, the U. S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect mentioned Christina Holt as a child "who died at the hands of parents or caretakers.
But that press conference yielded nice results for the National Center. News stories about the kiosk mentioned Walsh, his television show, the National Center, IBM, which donated some of the equipment, and said another private company had donated money for that project.
Using child tragedies for publicity and profit has always been one of Walsh's priorities since he helped found the National Center. In January 1986, for instance, Lindsay Blake Householder, two-weeks-old, supposedly vanished from Winchester, Virginia. Her mother claimed stranger abduction, so Walsh and his National Center became interested because the case had generated publicity.
Three weeks later her mother confessed to killing the child and police recovered tiny Lindsay's remains. Her mother eventually went to jail.
But, in one of its first acts of "cause-related marketing," a month after her mother's confession and the finding of her child's remains, Lindsay Blake Householder's picture appeared in a Missing Children Bulletin published by the Illinois State Police.
That Bulletin gave the National Center's phone number, telling anyone who had seen Lindsay to contact Walsh and company. "Cause-related marketing" and the publicity it produces has caused some child care experts to oppose such programs as scaring children needlessly and misrepresenting the missing children problem.
On May 7, 1986, for instance, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial entitled Where Are The Children?
Much of the responsibility for public misperception of the missing children problem goes to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.... In 1984, the Center proclaimed that 50,000 children were being abducted every year. That figure was cited and recited thereafter.
Having stoked the present missing children mania, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is not doing as much as it should to calm the fears it raised. No one would argue that parents shouldnt be informed of threats to their children, but such information should not be sensationalized merely to stir up public interest.
Individual child care experts had begun to speak out also.
On Friday, April 11, 1986, the "Today" show featured the late Dr. Lee Salk, questioning how many children were gone and saying he felt fingerprints didn't bring home children.
This show aired when a national group of shopping centers held a weeklong campaign to fingerprint children.
"Fingerprinting of kids," Bryant Gumbel, the show's host, said. "It's happening at your local shopping center. Our question is, is it worthwhile or is it just frightening your child?
"Joining us this morning is John Walsh. In 1981, Mr. Walshs six-year-old son Adam was abducted from a shopping center; two weeks later Adam's dead body was found. Since then, Mr. Walsh has founded the Adam Walsh research center, which aids the parents of missing children.
"Also joining us this morning is Dr. Lee Salk. Dr. Salk is professor of psychology at the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center and has some problems with the fingerprinting effort.... Dr. Salk...what's wrong with it?"
"First of all, the statistics do not justify all the fear and anxiety. What concerns me about this is that the vast numbers that are presented to people on missing children are guesstimates, at best; nobody really has accurate statistics," Dr. Salk told him.
"Because we group runaways in that also?" Gumbel asked.
"Yes," answered Dr. Salk. "Because, you see, parents believe that their children are about to be abducted if they walk out of the house. The facts are that there were less than 100 children who were reported legitimately -- if I can use the expression -- kidnapped.
"The rest are children who have run away from home. The majority of missing children, 90 to 95 percent of them, are runaways. And some of them are abducted during custody battles in an attempt to gain children....
"But you see, the anxiety that pervades this country about this, I think, is creating, putting children in an atmosphere of violence; they're deeply concerned about the violence. And I cannot tell you how many parents have called me up in recent weeks telling me their children are waking up in the middle of the night screaming because they dream of seeing their picture on the side of a milk container."
Gumbel spoke of fingerprinting and Walsh admitted it didn't prevent abductions. "It's a means of identification, if the child is found alive primarily," Walsh told him.
Dr. Salk then mentioned a study by the American College of Pathologists which found only 68 unidentified bodies of people under the age of 18 in 1983.
Gumbel didn't ask Walsh where his figures came from when Walsh had said in the past there were thousands of unidentified bodies of children buried each year. Gumbel did ask Dr. Salk about shopping centers and their safety programs. "Are parents being misinformed about what's going on at these shopping centers?" Gumbel asked.
"Yes, absolutely," Dr. Salk said.
"Suspicious of the motives?" Gumbel asked.
"Well, I don't think anybody could question that sort of thing. I'd love to see if they would be willing to take ten percent of their profits for the week and give it to services that help children.
I'm concerned with the overall effect this has on our nation's population," Dr. Salk answered. "I see myself as an advocate of children and I'm deeply concerned about the fact that parents are in a state of panic. And this panic is reflected in their relationship with their children."
"But in this case, isn't fingerprinting a bit like chicken soup -- I mean, it couldn't hurt?" Gumbel asked him.
"Well, I think it can hurt, because it puts children in an atmosphere where violence is really surrounding them. We really frighten them with something that does not exist," Dr. Salk said.
And the late Dr. Benjamin Spock agreed.
"The current rage for fingerprinting is ridiculous," said the author of Baby and Child Care, among other books about children. "You're going to scare the bejeebers out of ten million children and I've seen no evidence that it works. A kidnapper doesn't say to a child, `Have you been fingerprinted?'"
Dr. Spock came out against fingerprinting of children, public displays of missing children, and inflated figures on child abduction, all of which could scare children, he said. He also felt that seeing so many pictures of missing children in public could have a negative effect on the imagination of a child.
"I just don't think that fingerprinting will help very much to recover children and I think that it's more likely to scare children and I am against it," he said.
He pointed out that such fingerprinting and related publicity on missing children could hurt children in safe families, where there is no threat of parental abduction.
"Children have very morbid imaginations and they can be upset by all kinds of things that are not real threats to them at all," Dr. Spock explained. "I think a study was made years ago of what children thought about tonsillectomy.... One child I remember thought that the surgeon slit the throat from ear-to-ear, tipped the head back and reached down into the throat to remove the tonsils. This is a pretty awesome picture that no adult would possibly imagine and no parent would think that this is what's in the back of a child's mind."
Dr. Spock gave another example of a child's active imagination, this time about a young boy who was moved from one ward of a hospital to another ward. "He worried himself sick because he thought his parents wouldn't be able to find him because they left him in one ward and he pictured them coming back, looking for him there, and then, after searching around, going home because they didn't know where he was," he said.
"Again, parents would never think of this as one of the things children's morbid imaginations can pick up," he continued. "But I think that children reading about kidnappings and seeing pictures of missing children is going to work on their imaginations even if they're in a very healthy family situation."
In addition, Dr. Spock felt that fingerprinting would not help recover teenagers who run away from home. "The only good that fingerprinting will do, that I see, is to identify a child who has been murdered," he explained. "They say that fingerprints deteriorate very fast after death...."
Dr. Spock felt that policemen conducting fingerprinting programs could make children "worrisome." To children, he pointed out, "Police are not their protectors. Police are the people who punish you, or punish adults, or punish other people when they have done something wrong. So I think that it (fingerprinting) has the wrong effect on children."
Families and children could be scared by inflated numbers of missing children, too, he claimed. "I think that the numbers are very scary unless you know that they're highly inflated and that most of them aren't true disappearances. They aren't killings. And they aren't kidnappings."
Dr. Spock felt it would be reassuring to parents to know that the cases of children who really disappeared are very small compared to the published figures. "I think if they (government officials) are going to discuss such figures at all they should put out non-alarmist figures," he said.
Yet, "cause-related marketing" continues, with local civic groups and non-profit agencies working with the National Center by offering child identification days, videotaping, fingerprinting, and photographing children.
Florida hospitals now take DNA samples of newborn children. Salt Lake County Sheriffs deputies recently provided child identification kids with pictures, medical information and DNA samples for parents to use with their children. Civic groups near Dallas, Texas, distributed fingerprinting kits to more than 5,000 children. A regional non-profit missing child group in Canada even took footprints of small children last spring, while Parent-Teacher Associations around the country still fingerprint children.
And a national video rental chain has sponsored free videotaping of children during August for the past nine years. Endorsed by the National Center, this program taped youngsters, claiming such videos would come in handy should children become lost or abducted. That program received much publicity.
But no child has been found through videotaping.
Walsh, a one-time lifeguard and sales executive for a Florida hotel, once publicly called Dr. Spock "a self-promoter."
And, still ignoring criticism, Walsh, along with several partners, recently promoted a company selling DNA fingerprinting kits. Parents buy a kit with materials to take samples from a child's mouth, send them to that company, and a medical laboratory then analyzes the samples to produce a DNA profile. The process costs about 100 dollars. Newspapers carried stories of him publicizing such kits.
Also, hes received much press coverage for promoting a Victims Rights Amendment to the Constitution. It would allow parents and relatives to witness all legal proceedings against anyone accused of murdering their children.
Passing and ratifying such an amendment would take years, therefore giving it much press, Abbott said. But its only good after children are killed. How many police would it put on the street to look for lost or abducted children? And how many new runaway shelters would it finance?
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