Worry about missing children has escalated into a national epidemic of fear.
The faces of the missing stare back at us from television screens, utility bills, milk cartons and grocery bags.
Various groups warn us that as many as 1.5 million children disappear each year and that strangers kidnap as many as 50,000 of them. And, the groups say, as many as 4,000 children are murdered after being abducted.
However, law enforcement officials, joined by leading missing-children experts, say that those numbers are grossly exaggerated.
One missing child is too many. The family tragedy of having a child kidnaped and murdered cannot be diluted by numbers of any kind.
Yet, the inflated numbers themselves are damaging the lives of millions of parents, affecting how they feel about their children's safety and what they should teach their children about the society they live in.
"Parents are scared. They think there's someone on every street corner waiting to grab their child," said Jack McInvoy, a family relations psychologist.
"It's making children paranoid, too. There's a difference between healthy respect and caution and what's going on now. It's not healthy anymore."
"There's a tremendous scare on," said Louis McCagg, director of Child Find, the nation's oldest and best-known missing children organization. Once a strong supporter of the 50,000 estimate, Child Find now says that the actual number of stranger-abducted children is less than 600 per year.
The cases of children kidnaped by strangers on file with the FBI and children's groups show an even smaller number. The FBI reports that it had 67 cases of children kidnaped by strangers in 1984. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that it has firm records on 142 cases.
Law enforcement and missing children experts say that about 95% of missing children reports are on runaways, and most runaways return home within three days. Most of the rest are children abducted in parental custody disputes. Only a small fraction are abducted by strangers.
"Their figures are impossible," said Bill Carter of the FBI's public information bureau in Washington. "More than 50,000 soldiers died in the Vietnam War. Almost everyone in America knows someone who was killed there," Carter said. "The numbers I've seen from missing child groups on abducted children range from 5,000 to 50,000. Do you know a child who has been abducted? That should tell you something right there."
His sentiment was backed up by law enforcement officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Denver.
The bottom line is clear. There are not tens of thousands of children snatched away each year to be beaten, tortured or murdered, the common perception of many parents who have lined up their children for fingerprinting sessions and for classes on "Stranger Danger."
"It's sad to say, but some organizations are exaggerating the figures to make their cause seem more urgent," said John Gill, director of Children's Rights of New York. "Why, our schools should be empty if there were that many missing children."
Rep. Dan L. Schaefer (R-Colo.) claimed in the Congressional Record, "In my home state of Colorado, over 11,000 children are listed as having been abducted."
Schaefer said he got the figures from the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Department. Investigator Lamar McLeod said that the department had no such figures, adding, "We don't even have that many runaways statewide."
Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) in a letter to fellow members of Congress, said that "150,000 or more (children) are taken by estranged parents, thousands of others are abducted by strangers who want children for prostitution, child pornography or other exploitative purposes. Some 4,000 are later found dead."
Those deaths would be four times the number of all homicides, about 900, committed against children under 15 in the United States each year.
Why has there been such inflation of missing-children statistics? Part of the problem is how they are reported and interpreted.
In March, for instance, 27,489 missing juvenile reports were entered in the FBI's computer, but by the end of March, 27,520 cases had been removed, including ones from prior months. However, some groups have taken such a single month's total reports and multiplied that number by 12, without allowing for cases cleared. They come up with more than 300,000 missing children.
James M. Wootton, deputy administrator of the office of juvenile justice and delinquency in the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed that many figures have been inflated but said that could be beneficial.
The publicity has "made a lot of people aware that children are at risk, but it could go too far. . . . What shouldn't happen is to raise children's anxiety level to the point they don't trust adults."