How Politics Helped Start the Scandal of Missing Children - page three
by John Edward Gill
By now Walsh was saying between 1.5 million and 2 million children were missing each year, yet still not giving sources for his estimates. His Adam Walsh Child Resource Center (Adam Walsh Center), which started with no money in 1981, now had about half a million dollars a year. He spoke to many state legislatures and received awards. Politicians and civic groups wanted their pictures taken with him. He seemed the perfect advocate, articulating a new, if unproven, sensational danger to children.
On February 2, 1983, he told another Congressional hearing about the need for an unidentified dead file. "I believe the Missing Children Act was something that should have been done ten years ago...That set into motion the ability that when the children were found dead, or someone found them, that at least those searching parents criss-crossing the country could get the body back."
He still never talked about trying to find children while they were alive.
That 50,000 figure had become the cornerstone of a new industry in missing children agencies and businesses, with novel schemes to make money from doubtful and useless products like fingerprinting kits, photo identification kits, videos of children, identification tags, bracelets, pendants, tooth implants, child harnesses, and child beepers, among others. With only a handful of agencies in 1981 working on parental abduction, soon there were around 150 missing children agencies by 1984, all dealing with "missing" children. Most of their cases were about parents who left a spouse or partner and hid with their children. But all of their publicity was about strangers abducting children.
And they kept using that 50,000 figure, without giving sources, without asking for an incident study, and without stressing the need for federal laws against parental abduction. There were stories about groups of homosexual men who kidnapped young children to molest or film; there was talk that such groups had thousands of members, and that they were organized. Walsh told Congress, "The kidnappers are more organized that we are." These agencies, businesses, and their products thrived on Walsh's publicity and other promotional work by Child Find. Private companies bought pictures of missing children to use in their advertising, without any explanation of how a child had disappeared. Some cases were years old; some were runaways; none had witnesses to these alleged abductions.
So no one paid attention to Sutherland, not politicians, not the press. False publicity and news-making events continued. Stranger abduction was new, a seemingly horrifying crime which made perfect feature stories and excellent material for talk shows. Child Find started having fundraising dinners on May 25th each year, the anniversary of Etan Patz's 1981 disappearance in New York City. President Reagan soon proclaimed that date, May 25th, as National Missing Children's Day. Child Find boasted in its private literature that it "had excellent contacts with the national media."
That first showing of "Adam," in October, 1983, on NBC-TV, mentioned both Paula Hawkins and Jay Howell and that film implied that Walsh created the Missing Children's Act to require the F.B.I. to list missing children in its files. In December, 1983, Howell, Walsh, Child Find and some members from the American Bar Association (ABA) Washington, D.C., organized a conference at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, which is near Houston. Five people from Child Find came down, as well as Linda Otto, who produced the movie "Adam." Howell chaired the conference, which allowed each agency there to advertise itself. But he didn't want controversy and wouldn't allow questions.
For instance, this author wanted to know why the ABA didn't support those federal bills to outlaw child stealing by parents. "The ABA never supported those bills because they would have taken away money from private lawyers who handled custody cases and given the government jurisdiction over such cases," this author commented, over Howell's protests.
Howell was firm, though, and wouldn't allow an answer. Each group gave a short speech, with John Walsh and Linda Otto speaking last and having the most time. Walsh spoke again of the need to identify dead bodies and list missing children in a national register. Walsh never said more police should be hired to find abductors or that Hollywood paid him $300,000 for screen rights to his story. Every speaker told of the need to raise money, work with other groups, meet with law enforcement, get publicity, organize boards of directors who could donate funds, and solicit volunteers.
None spoke of finding children. None spoke of those Congressional bills to make parental abduction a federal crime. None spoke of hiring more police and law enforcement officials to look for missing children. None spoke of studies to determine the number of missing childen each year, whether those children ran away, became lost, or were taken by parents or strangers. None mentioned that police had more experience and more authority to find child abductors and molesters than private groups and vigilantes.
Barry Flint, head of Child Find's board of directors, said there was a need to seek corporate funding. Gloria Yerkovich, founder of Child Find, talked about getting on television. Howard Davidson said the ABA had a list of state child-stealing laws. Howell promised that a national organization would be set up soon to deal with the problem, and the closing statements were by a Justice Department official who said such a national agency would hold a conference soon.
"An incident study would show how rare stranger abduction was," Abbott has said. "And getting more police and the federal government involved would have put those groups out of business." Abbott wasn't invited to that conference and heard about it from friends who had gone there.
There were other groups concerned that Walsh, Howell, and Child Find distorted the issue of "missing" children, ignoring parental abduction.
Walsh fueled concerns of those small groups with a letter published by Ann Landers on Friday, February 3, 1984, in her nationally-syndicated column. Written by Denny Abbott, executive director of the Adam Walsh Center, that letter took the opposite approach from Sutherland, explaining how 50,000 children a year are abducted by strangers.
"Dear Ann: Consider these chilling statistics: every hour 205 American children are reported missing. This means 4,920 per day and 1.8 million per year," Denny Abbott wrote. He then gave that 50,000 figure on stranger abductions. He offered tips about how children should know their addresses and phone numbers and not get into cars with strangers. But Denny Abbott concluded with, "We welcome queries from your readers who want to join us in the fight to make America safe for our children once again." Landers published the address of the Adam Walsh Center, which then was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She didn't question his figures. (Nikki Abbott and Denny Abbott are not related.)
In June, 1984, President Reagan held a reception for officials of the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children (the National Center) in the White House Rose Garden. Walsh and his wife were there, as were many advisory board members of Child Find, including Yerkovich. President Reagan posed for pictures with Walsh again and introduced Howell as the National Center's Executive Director. His starting salary was $40,000, but soon it climbed to $65,000.
Many of the National Center's board members were advisory board members of Child Find. They included Ernie Allen, from Louisville, Kentucky, Dick Ruffino, a Sheriff from New Jersey, Davidson, from the ABA, and Dr. Daniel Broughton, from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Pat Hoff, also from the ABA, was not officially with the National Center, but she'd given her name to Child Find, while Walsh and Howell had attended a 1983 fundraiser in New York City for Child Find. Walsh and several officials from that Kentucky Task Force in Louisville founded the National Center, which was a non-law enforcement, private agency.
A press release from the White House said nearly two million children were missing each year and that 50,000 youngsters were taken annually by strangers. So, distorted publicity about strangers abducting children continued, with the White House now officially involved. In April, 1984, NBC-TV again aired "Adam," and, as with the first showing, it came in among the top ten in the Nielsen ratings. The National Center itself got press, both print and broadcast. Brochures distributed by Howell claimed the National Center was a clearinghouse for information about missing children. Soon it became clear the National Center copied Child Find -- keep the fear going by using those high, false figures; always give examples of how small children were killed or murdered, even though "strangers" weren't involved; talk about the need for "public awareness" about the problem; list any case where you were even remotely involved in finding a child; say you need extra money to find more children. And don't talk about the need for stronger federal laws and for hiring more police. Talk about changing state laws, because such laws will still conflict and won't solve the problem. Don't mention the F.B.I. or U.S. Marshall Service, either.
Aided by three million dollars a year from the Justice Department, the National Center set out to get private money. For donations of anywhere from ten thousand dollars and up, a company could purchase pictures of missing children to use in its advertising. People were more likely to buy products from companies which looked like they wanted to find missing children. A National Endowment was created to accept private contributions, and donors had their names and companies mentioned in At The Center, a newsletter published three times a year by Howell.
In keeping with conservative policies of President Reagan, the National Center involved as many private corporations as possible in recovering allegedly missing children. Pictures of children appeared in airport and hotel lobbies, on grocery bags and utility bills. At The Center listed bus companies, hotels and airlines who supposedly gave searching parents free accommodations.
Then came the milk cartons.
H.R. Wilkinson, president of the National Child Safety Council (NCSC), in Jackson, Michigan, came up with the idea. He would get dairies to print pictures of missing children and then give the toll-free number of the National Center. The idea caught on and soon more than three hundred dairies were involved. But like so many posters and directories, those milk cartons carried pictures of children who might have run away, and who might have been helped if phone numbers of runaway hotlines, not pictures, had been on those cartons. Jennifer Anne Douglas, for instance, was 17 when she vanished. Kristen Marie Koslowski was 18 when she vanished.
Wilkinson also printed an Abducted Children Directory in March, 1986, with the name and phone number of the National Center. That Directory had pictures of approximately 140 children, but about 80 of them were 12-years-old or older, which meant they might have run away instead of having been abducted. Howell went on radio shows with Hawkins, claiming several children had been found through the milk cartons. But he couldn't prove it. Yet no one questioned him -- no reporters, no television producers, no public officials.
Ellis "Bud" Meredith soon joined Howell at the National Center, becoming its "president." Meredith was a staunch Republican who'd been a lobbyist for the clothing industry, but he had no experience in finding missing children. The Wall Street Journal and Family Circle in 1986 raised questions about the National Center, but nothing stopped the National Center, Child Find, or similar groups. They continued to promote questionable services and products, and still claimed 50,000 stranger abductions of small children each year.
Congress held two more hearings in the summer of 1986, but there were no suggestions to cut off funding for the National Center. By 1988 Ernie Allen, then chairperson of the Center, told Congress that 953 companies distributed photos of missing children, but not on milk cartons. "The Center is concerned about the potential for unnecessarily frightening children, and therefore we do not cooperate with programs that distribute photos through such media as milk cartons...." It would not be the first time Allen, Walsh, or anyone else in the missing childrens business would have to back off from statements or activities which they once supported. For Allen didn't tell Congress that the National Center had allowed the NCSC earlier to print its (the National Center's) toll-free phone number on such milk cartons. Allen then criticized those cartons in 1988 because the National Center raised money from private sources, annoying NCSC officials, who took the National Center's number off the cartons.
Yet another questionable issue was the National Center's claims that it had "recovered" thousands of missing children, when it had done nothing to bring them home. In many cases, children had not even been abducted, but were gone for other reasons. Yet the National Center always wanted publicity and still wrote monthly reports on children it claimed to have found. Child Find, of course, and other companion agencies in the missing children business, still made similar claims, never offering proof, yet escaping Congressional and journalistic attack.
Undaunted, Walsh had appeared before the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee on April 1, 1982. He again said, "50,000 children disappear annually and are abducted for reasons of foul play." He urged parents to fingerprint their children. As usual, neither Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, Senator Hawkins, nor any other panel member asked him where that 50,000 figure came from.
And on February 2, 1983, Walsh appeared before the same Senate committee with Specter and Hawkins. "The children are the victims," Walsh said, after repeating the story of Adam's disappearance and death. "This country is littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, strangled children."
No one asked where he had seen such a littered countryside.
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