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Missing Children—How Widespread a Tragedy?

'MY CHILD IS MISSING!' There could be few greater causes of anxiety for most parents than having to utter those words. While no exact global figure can be established for the number of children missing from their homes, we can learn how widespread a tragedy it is through published reports in many countries.

IN THE United States, from 500,000 to over 1,000,000 children, depending on how they are classified, are listed as missing from their homes each year. They may be missing a short period of time or be missing permanently. England reports that almost 100,000 children disappear annually, although some say the number is much greater. The former Soviet Union spoke of tens of thousands of children as missing. In South Africa the number is said to be more than 10,000. And in Latin America, millions of children face this tragedy.

A spokesman for the Italian Ministry of the Interior indicated the dimension of the problem there when he wrote in L'Indipendente: "They leave home on a day like many others. They go to school or to play, but they do not come back. They disappear, vanish into nothing. Family members desperately search for them, but there are only faint traces, insufficient clues, few—and uncertain—eyewitnesses."

A recent study in the United States on the magnitude of this problem revealed that the heading "missing children" includes, in actuality, several categories. One category is children abducted by strangers. Another is children abducted by a parent, as in custody cases. Then there are the throwaways, children unwanted by parents or guardians. There are also runaways, another large category. And there are those lost or otherwise separated from their family for just a few hours or for a day or two—mostly children staying out beyond the time agreed upon or children whose parents have misunderstood their intentions. Very, very few of these stay missing.

However, what happens to the missing children in the more serious categories? Why does this tragedy happen? This issue of Awake! examines various aspects of the tragedy and answers the question, When will it end?

When Children Are Abducted by Strangers

"PLEASE HELP US FIND HER. PLEASE, PLEASE HELP SARA!" This impassioned cry from two anguished parents was televised across the United States in an effort to recover their 12-year-old daughter, Sara Ann Wood. She had been kidnapped three weeks earlier as she bicycled home along the country road where she lived.

A MASSIVE search party combed woods, fields, and nearby lakes looking for traces of the missing girl. About the same time, Tina Piirainen, another anguished parent in a neighboring state, also went on camera pleading for her missing daughter. Lured down a wooded path, ten-year-old Holly vanished in less than an hour. Later her remains were found in a field. Life for the parents of missing children is an agonizing ordeal. Daily they struggle with the uncertainty of whether their child is alive, perhaps being physically harmed or sexually abused, or dead, as was the case with little Ashley. Ashley went with her family to watch her brother compete in a soccer game. Tired of watching, she walked to the playground—and vanished. Later, Ashley's body was found in a nearby field. She had been strangled.

Horrifying Nightmare

In the United States, each year, from 200 to 300 families will experience the horrifying nightmare of having a child kidnapped and then perhaps never seeing the child alive again. While the numbers appear small in comparison with other violent crimes committed, the fright and terror that ripple through entire communities affect thousands of people. In shock they wonder, 'How can such a tragedy happen here? Will my child be next?'

In the United States, the annual number of reported cases of children abducted is between 3,200 and 4,600. Two thirds or more of these are sexually assaulted. Ernest E. Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, noted: "The primary reason is sexual, followed by intent to murder." Also, according to the Department of Justice, over 110,000 other abductions are attempted each year, mostly by motorists, usually men, trying to lure a child into their car. Other lands are also experiencing a wave of violence against children.

Does Society Share the Blame? Concerning child killing, an Australian researcher shows that it is "not a random event." In his book Murder of the Innocents—Child-Killers and Their Victims, Paul Wilson states that "both the killers and the killed are caught up in a vicious cycle that society itself has created."

It might seem strange to think that society may be responsible for, or at least may contribute to, this tragedy, since most people find the exploitation of and the murder of children to be horrendous acts. Yet, industrialized societies, and even many less-developed ones, are saturated with films, TV productions, and reading material that glorify sex and violence. There are now more and more hard-core pornographic films featuring children and even adults dressed up to resemble children. These depict explicit sex and violence involving children. Wilson further notes in his book that there are movie titles such as Death of a Young One, Lingering Torture, and Dismembering for Beginners. How large an audience do sadistic violence and pornography have? It is a multibillion-dollar industry!

Graphic violence and pornography have a tremendous impact on the lives of those who exploit children. A convicted sex offender who had murdered five young boys confessed: "I am a homosexual pedophile convicted of murder, and pornography was a determining factor in my downfall." Professor Berit Ås, of Oslo University, explains the effect child porn has: "We made a big mistake at the end of the 1960s. We believed that pornography could replace sex crimes by providing an outlet for sex offenders, and we took the lid off. Now we know we were wrong: such pornography validates sex crimes. It leads the offender to think, 'If I can watch this, it must be okay to do it.'"

An adult's desire for titillation escalates as he becomes addicted to pornography. As a result, some are willing to use either coercion or violence to obtain children for their perverted use, including rape and murder.

There are other causes for child abductions. In some lands this has increased because of bad economic conditions. Lured by large sums of ransom money paid by wealthy families, kidnappers target children. Each year many infants are stolen and sold to adoption rings that transport them out of the country. Who make up the major portion of missing children? What happens to them? The next two articles will examine this matter.

Millions of Child Prostitutes According to the United Nations, about ten million children, mostly in developing countries, have been forced into prostitution, many of whom had been kidnapped. This evil trade has increased in Africa, Asia, and Latin America along with the increase in foreign tourism. In some areas, of the millions of tourists, especially from wealthier lands, about two thirds are "sex tourists." But there is a day of reckoning, since man's crimes are "openly exposed to the eyes of him with whom we have an accounting," Jehovah God.—Hebrews 4:13.

When Parents Kidnap

AFTER suffering years of violent beatings and severe emotional abuse at the hands of her husband and then finally being betrayed for another woman, Cheryl sued for divorce. With full custody of her children granted to her by the courts, calmness slowly settled in as she began putting the pieces of her life back together—until one day when the phone rang. It was her ex-husband. He said: "If you want to see your children again, you must agree to remarry me"! Forbidden to return to their mother after their monthlong visit with their father in his native country, Cheryl's children were kidnapped.

Devastated, Cheryl petitioned the U.S. State Department but found no legal way to recover her children in the other country. The feelings of utter helplessness that she had experienced through years of battering returned. "It's almost the same thing," she explains. "You don't know how to stop it."

"Psychological Violence" Parental kidnapping has been termed "a supreme act of psychological violence" perpetrated against a parent and a child. Carolyn Zogg, executive director of Child Find of America, Inc., said regarding such kidnappers: "Many parents who do this are getting even, and they are getting even in the worst possible way and in the most vulnerable area. That's the area that is the closest to [the parents that have legal custody]—their jewel, their children. . . . They're not thinking of the child, only of themselves and the revenge—getting even, getting back."

A child's being kidnapped not only subjects the parent to feelings of rage, loss, helplessness, and anxiety but almost always damages the child's emotional well-being to some degree. In some cases a child may be forced to live on the run, avoiding close ties and hearing distortions and lies about the other parent. The experience may produce an array of disorders, such as bed-wetting, insomnia, clinging behavior, fear of windows and doors, and extreme fright. Even in older children, it can produce grief and rage.

In the United States, there are over 350,000 cases each year in which a parent takes a child in violation of a custody order or fails to return the child in the time allowed. In over 100,000 of these cases, the child is concealed by a family member with the intent to keep him or her permanently from the other parent. Some are taken out of the state or even out of the country.

Other Reasons Is it always a desire for reconciliation or a vengeful spirit that motivates parents to abduct their children? Michael Knipfing of Child Find explains that some parents fear losing a custody battle with their ex-spouse and that "out of fear they act preemptively." Or when custody has been determined and one parent keeps denying the other visitation rights, frustration sets in. Explains Knipfing: "If you love your child and you're denied seeing your child, you tend to think that you have no other alternative but to grab the child and run."

He also states that 'most people do not realize the ramifications of kidnapping a child. They don't realize they are going to have trouble getting a job. Warrants are out for their arrest. They think the problem is just between them and the other parent. They don't realize that the police get involved. They need two lawyers instead of one because now they've got a criminal charge to deal with as well as the civil problem, which is who gets custody of the child.'

Some parents may suspect that their child is being harmed by the other parent. If the legal system is slow to act, then a desperate parent might act despite the consequences. This was seen in the case of five-year-old Hilary Morgan. A child psychiatrist advised that visits between Hilary and her father should stop, calling the evidence of abuse "clear and convincing." The courts, however, ruled the abuse tentative and prescribed unsupervised visits. Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, Hilary's mother, in violation of the court, hid her daughter. Much public sympathy is aroused for such a parent who kidnaps and flees for protection.

In the case of Elizabeth Morgan, she lost her surgical practice, spent over two years in prison, and ran up medical and legal debts of more than 1.5 million dollars. She explained to U.S.News & World Report: "The experts tell me that my child would now be permanently insane had I not stopped the abuse. . . . I had to do the job that the court refused to do: Save my child." True indeed is the observation made by researchers Greif and Hegar regarding abductions by parents: "These are exceedingly complex events that, like a deep pool of water, look slightly different depending upon the angle; each time one stares into the water something new is seen."—When Parents Kidnap—The Families Behind the Headlines.

In addition to children who are kidnapped by a parent or by a stranger, there are millions of other missing children all over the world—the throwaways and the runaways. Who are they, and what happens to them?

SOURCE: 1995 AWAKE 2/8 Missing Children-How Widespread a Tragedy?

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