It's not a funny movie when kids go off alone

December 02, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

"Aaaaaaaaaaah!"

Come see cute little Macaulay Culkin again. Slapping his hands to his face again. Come laugh again at the merry, madcap misadventures that follow when he's lost again -- this time in New York City -- in "Home Alone 2."

But when it happens in real life, is it all that funny to your average mom or dad?

Even if it's only for a few minutes in a shopping mall.

"You panic. You think the worst. You automatically think she's been snatched and killed," says Elizabeth Sanchez, 21, of Miami. She remembers the time her sister, Aby, now 13, was lost briefly in a Sears store eight years ago. "It seems so menacing out there. We hear so many stories."

"I just had my heart in my throat," said Thomasina Carver, 33, at the Broward (Fla.) Mall with her son, T.J., 6. She was remembering when T.J. wandered to a video arcade last year while she was trying on shoes. It took the longest 10 minutes of her life to find him.

Kids, being kids, regularly scare their parents to death by getting briefly lost in malls, at fairs, in airports. But what parents fear the most -- abduction by a stranger -- is less likely than most think, law officers say.

"In a normal year there are less than 100 in the country of stranger abductions," says Miami FBI spokesman Paul Miller. "One's too many, but it's not like it's in the thousands."

And the way Kevin gets lost in the movie -- mistakenly getting on a New York-bound plane while his parents get on a Miami-bound one -- is even less likely.

"Only in the movies," says David Melancon, of the Association for Flight Attendants, which represents 20 big U.S. airlines.

Most airlines have programs to help kids fly without parents, handing them from flight attendant to flight attendant, he said. Kids over 5 can fly alone without using that program, if their parents think they're up to it.

But no matter how briefly a child is missing, it takes years off the lives of parents.

"Usually the kid just wanders off to the other side of a clothes rack," says Mel Mendelson, manager of Dadeland (Fla.) Mall. "Usually it's only for four or five minutes. But the mothers are hysterical. They start screaming. Parents always think of Adam Walsh. They still remember."

Many parents still remember Adam -- the cute little 6-year-old boy in the now-famous photo, wearing his baseball suit, clutching his bat. Adam disappeared in 1981 after his mother left him playing video games in a Hollywood, Fla., Sears store while she went to buy a lamp.

Two weeks later, his severed head was found in a canal. The crime was never solved.

Adam's case helped create a wave of near hysteria in the mid-1980s, when wildly exaggerated claims were made that up to 1.5 million American children were missing. Now most acknowledge that the real number is in the hundreds.

It's very rare that a missing child has been abducted by a stranger, says Sgt. Thomas Murphy of the Metro-Dade (Miami) Police missing persons department. "I can't recall one here."

Almost all child abductions are by parents who have lost custody of children in divorce cases.

Mr. Mendelson, the mall manager, has to go back 11 years to remember the last time a lost child even got outside the mall. A 6-year-old boywandered away and was found a block away.

But just because kids are very seldom in serious danger when they're missing for a few minutes, don't think that is any comfort to their parents.

"Javier just wandered over to the toy department when he was in a K mart with his mother," said Jesus Saldana, 30, watching his 3-year-old son frolic at Miami International Mall.

"She called the manager, the police. She was just going crazy."

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