RICHMOND, Va. — Sallie Crane was broke and emotionally spent, but still she did not pull out of the search for missing children until an emotionally disturbed girl whose disappearance she had been investigating was found murdered.
"I get upset," Crane says now, "because there are kids out there that I wish I could help." But she has closed Child Watch of Virginia Inc.
Crane said closing organizations such as hers lessens public attention on the problem of missing children.
But others in similar agencies are not so sure. They say the frenzy of worry that followed some highly publicized cases has matured into a concern for the broader issue of children as victims of crime.
"The specific focus of the society through news accounts has definitely changed . . . and it is not at the fever pitch that it was a couple of years ago," said Jay Howell, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington. The center was set up under the Justice Department.
"Despite the short attention span, perhaps of the media, the concern of the average citizen remains very acute on this," he said.
Crane's voice trembled as she talked about walking away from the organization she started in 1984.
"I had perfect credit going into it and, basically, I went bankrupt," said Crane, who is now divorced and raising her children on her own.
"You're looking at a situation where you have to do something for yourself and your own family," she said, "and you have this parent who's crying, literally crying, to you at 3 in the morning, and what do you do?"
Other grass-roots organizations have also surrendered to financial reality, she said.
Crane estimated that her organization, using her money and funds donated by individuals and civic groups, spent about $50,000 in three years, often acting as a private detective agency in tracking runaways or youngsters taken by non-custodial parents.
Runaways--the biggest part of the problem, officials say--can end up as victims of prostitution, drug abuse, pornography or murder.
National and state clearinghouses for information on missing children, she said, do not provide the educational outreach needed to get at the source of the problem--troubled homes. The majority of cases involve older children, ages 12 through 17, running away from unbearable home situations.
A small minority involve the abduction of children by strangers, such as depicted in "Adam," a movie about the kidnaping and murder of a Florida boy that helped focus public concern on the issue.
"If the interest has died down, it's mostly because you have to have some kind of organization to keep it out in the forefront," Crane said.
Other officials insist that organizations are carrying on the protective work.