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Struggling to Stay Together : Activism: Groups formed after child kidnapings and murders frequently fade away after a few years.

January 10, 1994|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They are born in tragedy and nurtured on grief, frustration and anger. Their names are a roll call of children who have disappeared or died at the hands of strangers: the Kevin Collins Foundation, the Heidi Search Center, the Adam Walsh Center, the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, the Amber Foundation--and now the Polly Klaas Foundation.

In the past decade, more than a hundred such organizations have sprouted up in the wake of highly publicized child kidnapings and murders, and they are perhaps the most prolific of the so-called victims' rights groups. More are created every year as other children--an estimated 3,200 to 4,600 yearly--become victims of kidnaping by strangers.

All the groups start out in much the same way: a child disappears, and scores or hundreds or even thousands of volunteers turn out to help in the search. Because of the circumstances of the kidnaping or just plain luck, the case attracts extensive local, regional or--as with the Klaas case--national media attention. Sometimes the child is never found; sometimes the child is found dead. In the aftermath, the parents or the volunteers form a nonprofit group to try to "do something" about child abductions.

"There's so much intensity put into a search that there has to be an outlet for it," says Rick Benningfield, operations director for the Heidi Search Center in San Antonio, Tex., a "child find" group named after 11-year-old Heidi Seeman, kidnaped in San Antonio in August, 1990, and later found dead. "Even after the body is found, it's emotionally difficult to call off the search. Then you look around and you see that there's a need for an organization to help deal with the problem. So you keep going."

"Most of these organizations are formed out of personal loss," says Judi Sadowsky, executive director of L.A.-based Find the Children, a missing child assistance center founded in 1983. "When a child is missing, the frustration is so great that parents and families often feel the emotional need to get involved in starting an organization. Usually these are ordinary people who've been thrust into an extraordinary situation. Some can rise to it, and some can't."

Most of the groups fade away after a couple of years. Although no one keeps track of all the child victim organizations nationwide, people in the field estimate that at least half the groups formed in the wake of a child disappearance in the past 10 years have closed their doors as the money dried up and volunteers moved on. Others remain as not much more than numbers for phones that may or may not be answered.

Even the groups that survive find that usually there comes a time when the attention--and thus the money and volunteers--shifts to another tragedy involving a kidnaped child.

"A lot of it depends on how committed the parents and the volunteers are to continuing the work," says Julie Cartwright of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va., a national clearinghouse for information and programs involving missing children. "It takes all your time, and all your emotional energy, and every new case (of a kidnaped child) reopens the wound. Often it's difficult to keep up the momentum."

Still, some groups manage to continue long after the tragedy that created them.

Gary French, president of the fledgling Polly Klaas Foundation, is certain that his organization will be one of them.

*

It's been just more than a month since the body of 12-year-old Polly Klaas was found, nine weeks after she was abducted from a pajama party at her home in Petaluma near San Francisco. But the emotional adrenaline of the case lingers.

At the Polly Klaas Foundation, a 6,000-square-foot office in a shopping center across the street from the Petaluma police station, the phones still ring off the hook, hundreds of volunteers still put in long hours, donations still pour in--as much as $500,000 so far. The foundation board of directors, which includes Polly's parents, is formulating plans for legislative and educational programs to "make America safe for children." The national media still call.

"It's not going to taper off," French, 48, says confidently. "Of all those other (child victim) organizations that came before, none has had the national and international visibility that we have had. It gives us capabilities that they simply didn't have."

There have been some stumbles. The first head of the foundation resigned after it was disclosed that he had been convicted of a sex crime involving minors in 1967.

Also, members of other child find groups, a number of whom assisted in the Polly search, say privately that the unprecedented media attention in the Klaas case has created arrogance among some Klaas Foundation organizers.

"They're walking around acting like a bunch of movie stars," says the director of one long-established missing child foundation, who declined to be quoted by name.

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