In early October more than 600 people gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building (two blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) for the White House Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children.
Hosting the event were President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Dozens of those in attendance were the relieved or bereaved parents of abducted children, some missing for more than 20 years. In a private session for searching families – led by Robbie Callaway, senior vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and board chairman of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) – the president and first lady were close to tears.
These anguished families contributed a powerful and potent element to what was otherwise a celebratory event demonstrating the political clout and ample treasury of NCMEC. Said the president, “They [NCMEC staff] do a really good job for America. I want to thank Ernie.” That’s Ernie Allen, the center’s CEO. When the president of the United States doesn’t even bother to mention your last name, your position is secure in the pantheon of the Capitol’s lobbyist-operators.
Under Allen, NCMEC growth has been spectacular. There has, fortunately, been no growth in truly missing kids, just the number of jobs at NCMEC – the staff stands at more than 220 – to back up the claim that the Alexandria, Va.-based group “has played a role in the recovery of more than 63,000 children.”
In truth, NCMEC doesn’t look for missing kids, leaving that task of drudgery to local grass-roots groups who receive – only with NCMEC’s blessing – the leftovers from missing and exploited kids’ federal grant makers.
NCMEC’s propensity to cook the numbers on missing kids apparently went unnoticed by the president’s speechwriters. Bush told the crowd, “Each year tens of thousands of children are abducted by nonfamily members.” (In 1999, according to a new study by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 58,200 children were abducted by nonfamily members, but most are gone only hours. There were 115 “stereotypical” stranger or acquaintance abductions.)
The reluctant guests at the event were America’s runaways, who are often thrown into the statistical mix by those who make a living in the missing kids’ field in order to boost the numbers of missing into the millions. “There are as many as 100,000 runaway children every year,” the president said. (According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, there were 725,000 missing child entries – 2,000 a day – in 2001.) However, the “vast majority” of these cases “were resolved within hours.”
The president claimed one in 20 runaways won’t live to tell the tale. Said Bush, “Every year assaults and illness and suicide take the lives of about 5,000 runaways.”
Always stalking the runaway youth issue are those who would return to the Dickensian pre-1974 Runaway Youth Act days and simply lock up any runaway unwilling or unable to return home. Still, the president did endorse the federal runaway and homeless youth program, saying, “We will not forget the suffering and struggle of America’s runaway children. The federal government supports hundreds of emergency shelters and programs that reach out to young people living on the streets by offering food and comfort and counseling.”
The president even had a fund-raising suggestion after praising Sister Mary Rose McGready, who appeared on one of the conference panels. He singled out her work and that of her Covenant House as the kind of “community- and faith-based” efforts that need to be highlighted by those seeking examples to tout while also seeking funding for missing and runaway children’s agencies.
Sister McGready later thanked “the president and Mrs. Clinton” for the kind words. A collective intake of breath instantly alerted Sister McGready to make a little joke and correct herself. (The joke was so little, it was forgotten.)
Soon, too, will be the conference.
Contact: (800) 843-5678, www.ncmec.org.