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REGION Officials remind parents and kids of ways to prevent abductions



Published: Mon, August 5, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- The faces stare off the computer screen.

Most are children frozen in time.

Most are smiling. But the happy looks belie the reason why their photographs are posted here.

They are missing children. Young people stolen from their homes as far back as the 1960s.

Wendy Eaton was 15 when she disappeared in 1975 as she walked three blocks from her Media, Pa., home.

Kathleen Ann Shea was 6 when she disappeared in Tyrone, Pa., on her way to school in 1965. Her beige coat had a fur collar and she wore yellow boots and red gloves.

Decades later, families continue to list the faces and names of Wendy and Kathleen on the www.missingkids.com Web site of the National Center for Missing & amp; Exploited Children.

The girls -- now women if still alive -- are among 57 children missing from Pennsylvania and 39 missing from Ohio, says the center's Web site.

Others missing

In Ohio, James P. Higham, 16, has been missing from his Youngstown home since Jan. 3. A Mahoning County Sheriff's Department spokesman said he likely ran away.

Though she had never run away before, Laura Lynn Thompson is listed as a runaway. She was reported missing from New Castle when she was 16 in 1977.

Layla A. Pollis was 6 when she disappeared from McDonald in 1998. Investigators have said she was abducted from her father by grandparents who did not have legal custody.

Local police officials said it is most common that missing children fit into these two categories: runaways and children abducted by noncustodial relatives.

It is rare that children are kidnapped by strangers. As recent stranger kidnappings have come under the national media spotlight, however, parents have become more aware of the threat.

"I can't think of a time that we wrote a report about a child being snatched," said Maj. Michael Budd of the Mahoning sheriff's department.

The local situation mirrors what is happening across the nation.

In 2001, there were about 725,000 children reported missing, nearly 2,000 per day, with most being found quickly, say statistics from the National Center for Missing & amp; Exploited Children. The majority of the cases were parental abductions and runaways.

Fewer stranger abductions

Annually, about 3,000 to 5,000 nonfamily abductions are reported to police, and most are short-term and sexually motivated, center statistics show. Six percent -- about 200 to 300 -- make up the most serious cases in which a child is murdered, ransomed or taken with intent to keep.

Parents must remain aware, Budd said.

Cases of stranger kidnappings are usually perpetrated by sexual predators, he said. And one way they strike is via the Internet.

"Internet chat rooms, a lot of times, are a haven for pedophiles and other sexual offenders who can remain anonymous or pose as a playmate," Budd said. Parents must keep an eye on what children are doing on computers.

Outside the home, Budd said, "never leave your kids out of your sight or out of arm's reach."

Teach them to never go with a stranger and to follow rules to stay in their yard and not cross the street.

Remind them to never trust a stranger who offers them candy or asks them to help find a lost puppy.

"Unfortunately, it gets to the point where we have to rob children of their innocence and let them know how things really are," Budd said.

Eye-opening experiment

Lt. Robin Lees of the Youngstown Police Department said an experiment conducted by the juvenile bureau in the spring found that most children at Wick Park on the city's North Side followed a female officer posing as a "stranger" with a dog. When she asked if they wanted to help her give the puppy water or a treat, they went with her.

A key to helping children avoid abduction is to teach them what a stranger looks like, Lees said.

When asked what strangers look like, children draw evil-looking faces, he said. They don't understand that strangers may be soft-spoken and have a gentle appearance or a nice, familiar-looking face.

As such, he said, sometimes they don't "recognize" the stranger.

Among other tips for parents is to call the police if you see a suspicious vehicle in your neighborhood, especially if you see it more than once, Budd said.

And be careful about who you invite into your home and allow to become acquainted with your children. For example, children should not become friendly or be left alone with handymen.

Kids must trust instincts

Another tip is to teach children that it's OK to yell and run from strangers, to be rude to adults they don't know, and to tell the stranger they don't want to have contact with them, Budd said. Also, children should be encouraged to let adults know if they are uncomfortable with a certain adult.

Though there have not been any recent local kidnappings by strangers, Budd said he fears the recent string of kidnappings could promote "copycat" crimes.

Lees added that parents must remain vigilant and continue to take steps to prevent kidnappings.

"Maybe that's why we don't have one," he said.

viviano@vindy.com




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