Saturday, June 17, 2006

stamped impressions
Case of missing kids
Reeta Sharma

While travelling in any foreign country, one immediately senses that one is in an alien land. Nothing matches with what one is accustomed to in one’s own country. I am sure foreigners visiting India go through a similar experience.

So I was shocked when at various public places in the US I witnessed huge displays carrying pictures of children who had gone missing and were not traceable even after 10 to 15 years. At some places the displays even showed two pictures of one missing child, one at the age the child had gone missing and the other of the computerised graphic of the face after 15 years. I stood motionless before these displays trying to perceive the agony of the parents concerned. How they must be suffering the unending pain of losing a child and then not knowing whether they were still alive.

The US is almost seven times bigger than India in size. So my inevitable question was whether the number of missing children was on a par with the incidence of such a crime in other countries? But that does not appear to be the case. The national estimate of missing children has been categorised into different sections. For instance, those children who are missing involuntarily form about 15 per cent of the total missing children. Then there are those who have either run away or have been deserted by mothers or fathers. These count to approximately 48 per cent. The third category is that of children who have been abducted by one of the parents. These cases relate to parents who get divorced and the custody of children is given to one of the parents. Often the one who has been denied the custody is the one who is accused of abduction. These cases count 9 per cent of the total missing children. A total of 3 per cent are the ones who are kidnapped.

As per records being maintained by an NGO, 6,58,869 children have either been thrown away by their parents or have run away from their homes; the number of those missing involuntarily is 2,99,608; the abductions by either parent come to 1,37,306 and kidnappings 33,280.

Yet another organisation which has put the figures on its website reveals that 96,500 children are missing in the age group of five years and below; 1,13,400 between six and 11; 2,35,500 between 12 and 14; and 3,49,300 between 15 and 17. Of the missing children, males are 4.94 lakh and females 3.85 lakh.

Seeing the engrossing crime-related programmes shown on Discovery Channel, one assumed that in the US law agencies succeeded in solving every crime. The meticulous investigations backed by modern and high-tech deciphering systems are simply amazing. But these have not been of much use as so many children have remained missing for decades.

My host told me the story of a Spanish mother, whose 6-year-old son had gone missing from a park. The boy was refusing to get off the slide even when other children were leaving the park. At that moment she went to the restroom and when she returned a few minutes later her son was nowhere to be seen. It has been seven years and the boy continues to be untraceable. The mother meanwhile goes to the park every evening without fail and waits for two hours hoping that her son might just turn up looking for her.

Many parents have formed groups whose children have gone missing. They meet and provide emotional support to each other. They also announce awards for any clues.

Meanwhile, a school in Arizona has installed a device which scans faces. This scanning technology is designed to recognise registered sex offenders in the country. To put a check on the growing menace of abduction yet another device called “Amber key” has come in the American market. This device is a software on a small USB flash drive where the parents can put every identification detail of their child along with a picture. They can keep on updating it as per the growth of the child. This device can help the police trace the child. The Amber key is so sleek that parents can carry it on their key chains.

In the backdrop of this subject, there is another debate doing the rounds. As per an article in US Today, in the search of the missing children not all children are treated as equals. It points out that not only authorities but the media too pays more attention to the missing White children than the Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.

Social researchers feel that “missing children” is a crime as well as a social problem. The breaking up of the family system could be one of the causes of this problem. It is believed that the police does its job but the sheer size of the country poses a hurdle to nab the culprits.