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COVER STORY | JERRY HICKS

Parents: Plan for the Worst

April 26, 1999|JERRY HICKS

My 7-year-old daughter got fingerprinted last weekend. Her fingerprint file, with picture, is stored away. And like all parents, my wife and I hope to never see it again.

"But it's a necessary tool in the times we live in," said Shirley Goins.

She's executive director of the Orange County branch of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It recommends fingerprints of all youngsters older than 18 months as part of a national effort to help connect missing children with their families.

If your child is abducted as a toddler, for example, and is finally located years later, those fingerprints you filed away can be essential in identification.

The tragic cases, of course, are those in which a child is found dead, and the fingerprints are necessary for quicker identification.

"Nothing can bring the child back, but closure--just knowing for certain what happened--can be extremely important to families," Goins said.

It was an eye-opener to me to learn just how serious the problem of missing children is. The Orange County branch of the missing children's group gets 60 referrals each month for investigation. Those cases are tackled by three staff members and a group of volunteers.

The high majority are runaways. But it also investigated more than 500 other cases last year, either family-related abductions, lost children or missing children with circumstances unknown.

Though Orange County was fortunate not to have any abductions by strangers last year, there were 58 such cases in California. And Goins points out that in January alone this year, there were eight attempted abductions in the Southland, four in Orange County.

It was the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that set up the elaborate booth at a Target store where my daughter was fingerprinted and had her picture taken. Assisting was the Garden Grove Police Department, whose experts did the fingerprinting.

It took maybe five minutes. Yet sadly, we saw lots of shoppers with children who wouldn't take the time.

The Orange County branch of the group tries to reach as many children as it can through weekly health fairs and department store booths, where police departments always gladly participate.

But maybe it hasn't reached you. If you want a set of your children's fingerprints for your records, it's easy to do: Just call the police department in your city. If there's a delay for personnel reasons--the police want those prints taken, but they do get busy--you can contact the missing children's office at 18111 Irvine Blvd. in Tustin by calling (714) 508-0150.

Goins' office can provide a home kit, but she doesn't recommend it. You should have it done professionally, she said. The experts who took my daughter's prints stressed the need to regularly upgrade her stored picture. With toddlers, the pictures should be changed every six months.

Fingerprinting isn't the only thing we can do to help ensure our children's identification.

Take a cotton swab and run it throughout the inside of your child's mouth. Put the cotton swab in a small sealed container and store it in your refrigerator forever. This will preserve your child's DNA.

"A person's DNA never changes," Goins said. "It's just another tool that might someday be important.

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