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Adam Walsh, McMartin at Terror's Roots

October 15, 1995|ARLENE LEVINSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Adam Walsh would be 20 this year.

A generation has grown up since every parent's worst nightmare came true for John and Reve Walsh one summer day in 1981. Their 6-year-old son was snatched from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Fla. Two weeks later and just as they were about to make a national, televised appeal for his return, the Walshes learned their son's head had been found in a canal.

The story of Adam Walsh and his parents' wrenching public grief moved others to act. Soon, faces of missing children stared out from milk cartons. Parents began a practice, followed to this day, of fingerprinting their children in case of kidnaping.

Then, in 1983, a mother called police to report that her 2 1/2-year-old son had been molested at the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. The case quickly mushroomed, with more than 300 children telling stories that included sodomy, rape, animal mutilation and grave-robbing. A new district attorney dismissed charges against against five of the seven defendants, calling the evidence "incredibly weak"; the remaining two went on trial for a record 30 months. The jury acquitted them on 52 counts and deadlocked on 13 others, which eventually were dismissed.

If Adam Walsh's killer was never found, and the book closed on the McMartin case, the anxiety they stirred has not gone away.

A Newsweek poll two years ago tried to gauge parents' concern for their children's safety.

The shopping mall peril loomed largest, with 56% of parents saying their children's safety in those places caused "a lot" of worry.

This dwarfed the 26% of parents who said they worried a lot about their children at school and 16% who worried a lot about how safe their children were at the homes of other kids.

The telephone survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates polled 752 adults. The margin of sampling error was 4 percentage points in either direction.

But the truth about the real demons of childhood lies elsewhere.

Nearly 90% of those who mistreat children are parents or other relatives, according to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.

As for abductions, the federal government estimates 4,600 children at most are abducted by non-relatives each year.

The committee reports that last year in this country 3.1 million children under 18 were reported to be victims of abuse or neglect.

Less than half--1.4 million children, or 16 in 1,000--could be confirmed, according to the advocacy group, whose figures reflect preliminary results of its latest annual national survey.

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