Children hope to make streets safer for themselves

March 20, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Jason Galumbeck, Brian Downey and Alex Eichmiller are only in fifth grade, but already they fear that the world is a dangerous place for children.

Disturbed by highly publicized abductions, especially the Polly Klaas case in California, the Running Brook Elementary School students have begun a project on missing children.

"It scares me today that we children have to watch our backs so much," said Jason, 10, who launched the independent research project with his two friends, under the guidance of Running Brook resource teacher Susan Portney.

But what the three boys have learned so far surprises them.

Instead of the wave of abductions by strangers they had expected, they have learned that most of the estimated 1 million children reported "missing" nationwide each year are runaways or have been abducted by family members in a domestic dispute.

That pattern holds true statewide, where 12,436 youngsters disappeared in 1992 and 12,361 of them were runaways, according to the Maryland Center for Missing Children, an arm of the state police.

And none of the disappearances were abductions of any kind, according to the center.

But those facts have done little to quell the fears of the three students who, like many of their peers, worry about being kidnapped by strangers.

After collecting statistics on missing children, the three say they sometimes are afraid to venture out by themselves to the mall or to stay home alone.

"I'm more cautious in my house," Jason said. "I'm sort of scared sometimes."

Alex said he has become more aware of his surroundings whenever he leaves the house.

"I look around to make sure no one is sneaking up to hit me with a club or something," the 11-year-old said.

While local psychologists applaud the students' efforts to better understand child abduction, they stress that cases such as that of Polly Klaas, who was snatched from her bedroom in Petaluma, Calif., are relatively infrequent.

Nationally, strangers abduct about 200 to 300 children each year with the intention of killing, keeping or ransoming the child, said Ernest Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in Arlington, Va.

"Those are terrible, but not really descriptive of the larger incidents," Mr. Allen said. "What we struggle to do is put it into context."

Somewhat more numerous, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, are the 3,200 to 4,600 abductions by strangers in which the children are molested and released.

But Mr. Allen also stressed that the majority of "missing" children each year are runaways or have been abducted by family members.

Despite that, Marcia Coomber, a family therapist with Psychological Health Associates in Columbia, said fears about abduction are not uncommon among children.

Rather than suppress those fears, Ms. Coomber suggests that parents talk to children.

"It would allow them to ventilate the fears," she said. Emotions "that are suppressed and allowed to fester are the ones to worry about."

The Running Brook students said they got the idea to do a project on missing children after hearing about Polly Klaas, who was abducted last fall and killed.

They began work about a month ago, writing letters requesting interviews and information from the Maryland State Police and ,, from law enforcement officials in Howard and Prince George's counties.

They also have written to Polly Klaas' father, who has started a support group for parents of missing children. And the boys are arranging an interview with security personnel at The Mall in Columbia.

The boys devote at least 90 minutes each week to the project, meeting with Ms. Portney and officials they have contacted through their letters.

Ms. Portney said the students are learning a variety of skills that will help them as adults.

"They're using letter-writing skills, using telephone skills . . . and research skills," she said.

Ms. Portney also said the boys' project has not heightened their fears about abduction.

"It doesn't seem to be a problem," she said. "They seem to be taking a realistic approach."

The boys hope to educate their peers about abduction and reduce the number of children who disappear each year.

"We want kids to know this can happen to them," Brian said. "We can't stop it totally, but we can make it go down."

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