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Anti-Drug Video Opens Way for Teen's Crusade for Missing Children

April 26, 1991|JONATHAN GAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When 18-year-old Shane Salerno produced an anti-drug video featuring teen-age drug abusers last year, he appeared on local television, radio and in newspapers with newfound fame.

Now, the Carlsbad high school student is using those credentials to persuade the media to carry the names and faces of other children--missing children.

"It's an issue that so few people know about. . . . I want to bug the living hell out of people so that they're not going to be able to turn on the radio, watch the TV or open a newspaper without a seeing a picture of a missing child," Salerno said.

The San Dieguito High School senior talks about the program with the intensity of someone with his life at stake, and he won't take any answer but "yes" from the media.

"I don't expect to hear the word 'no,' " Salerno said. "First of all, there will be the letters from the local politicians asking them to do it, then parents whose children are still missing asking them to do it, and there will be me hounding (the) paper. When you put all those factors together, it will be a hard package to say no to . . . and I would question the humaneness of anyone that does.

"If television news broadcasts can segue to the Lotto numbers before a commercial, they can segue to a missing kid," Salerno said.

He knows that it won't be an easy sell, but he also said he's prepared for the fight.

"I'm going to have fun when an editor says 'no.' I'm going to have fun going toe-to-toe with him," he said.

"I'm telling you that, if a newspaper is responsible or a television station is responsible for recovering a child, it will be worth more than a Pulitzer Prize, and any editor with a social conscience should welcome that."

The program already has some converts. After two weeks of campaigning, Salerno has signed on the North County Blade-Citizen to carry a picture of a missing child with biographical information every day.

"Having gone through the trauma of Leticia Hernandez, the community is really sensitive to that sort of thing, and we felt that it was a good program to participate in," said William Missett, editor of the Blade-Citizen.

The Blade-Citizen will dedicate 6 to 8 inches to missing children, at first on a weekly basis and eventually every day, Missett said.

"This sort of thing has the potential to snowball, and if it did, it has the potential to be a powerful program," Missett said.

But Oceanside is just a start. Salerno wants every newspaper in the state and eventually the country to be involved.

"Milk cartons are not nearly as powerful a medium as a newspaper or television news broadcast. The bottom line is, do people look at milk cartons as seriously as they do a newspaper? How often do people flip over a milk carton and read it?" Salerno said.

The numbers on missing children show that the vast majority of child abductions are committed by parents involved in divorce disputes, according to a Justice Department study on missing children in 1988 and released last year.

The study showed that of 358,700 abductions that occurred nationwide in 1988, only 4,600 were abductions by nonfamily members, and only about 300 of those were considered serious from the point of view of social service agencies.

A 1984 survey of missing children in California conducted by the state Department of Justice showed that, of 24,000 missing children cases, only 550 were still lost after 30 days, and only three of those were abductions by strangers.

Salerno believes, however, that abductions conducted by parents in custody disputes are just as important as those conducted by strangers.

"Custody battles are not waged on the run, they are waged in the courtroom. . . . You cannot allow the option of a parent fleeing and breaking federal laws to get their child," Salerno said.

Salerno's position mirrors that of the Arlington, Va.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has come out in support of him and will supply the pictures and biographical information of the missing children.

"Shane is a dynamo. He is deeply concerned with the problems of missing children, and if we can reach enough people, we can find more children," said Ernie Allen, president of the nonprofit organization, which receives most of its $2.6-million budget from the federal government.

But Salerno's credibility comes from his anti-drug video "Sundown: The Future of Children and Drugs" that he produced last year featuring eight children telling the stories of their own drug abuse. The video was shown on cable television in December, and a local network affiliate is considering airing it.

The success of the anti-drug video was also a steppingstone to gain the credibility to do a project on missing children, Salerno said.

"Drugs bother more people, and drugs is an issue that people are more in tune with than missing children," Salerno said. "My heart was into both issues equally, but to get the attention and build up the credibility, I did the drug video first.

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