A Learning Experience at PTA Convention

Times Staff Writer

They had spent the morning on the arena floor at the Anaheim Convention Center voting on resolutions that would become a part of the state Parent-Teacher Assn.'s agenda in the coming year.

The resolutions--ranging from concern over the location of toxic and hazardous material sites to limiting the sale of alcohol at gas station mini-markets--were of vital importance to the more than 2,000 delegates to the California State PTA convention last week, but the business of proposing amendments and refining the wording of resolutions was largely a dispassionate, orderly process.

Shock and Sadness

That wasn't the case in the afternoon--not when the subject was missing and exploited children and the speaker was John Walsh, the father of the 6-year-old boy whose abduction from a Florida shopping mall and subsequent murder in 1981 were portrayed in the critically acclaimed television docudrama, "Adam."

Walsh had the several hundred delegates who were jammed into a conference room to hear him speak alternately shocked, saddened and outraged as he chronicled the horror stories of missing and exploited children he has encountered since he and his wife, Reve, turned their own anguish into political action nearly four years ago.

Saying he is a "great believer in the PTA," Walsh told the delegates at the outset of his talk that "you are the one PTA in the whole country I really wanted to speak to because of the extent of the problems (regarding missing children) in this state and how little has really been done here."

Walsh, who is special adviser for the federally funded National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, said he wanted to issue the same "strong challenge" to the California PTA that he made to delegates at the national PTA convention last year.

"I said, I read your charter, I know what you're about. Your charter says that you are concerned and care for all children and you're concerned with the quality of their education and their health and a lot of other things.

"And I said the thing you should really be concerned with, No. 1, is their safety, because if they aren't safe and you're the parent of a missing child or a molested child or a murdered child, you're never going to have to worry about the quality of their education or their welfare or their health because you will be spending every nickel you get searching for your child or trying to provide a psychotherapist so they can rebuild the damage done by a molester."

Walsh's conference on missing and exploited children reflects only one of the major concerns of the California State PTA, whose impact as children's advocate was illustrated again and again as the convention unfolded.

Los Angeles psychologist Michael Peck, who is helping develop the curriculum for the Youth School Suicide Prevention Program funded by the state Department of Education, made reference to the organization's impact after being presented with its honorary service award. "The state Legislature," he told the delegates, "would not have passed this program if not for the active efforts of the California PTA."

Honig Lauds Efforts

And state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, speaking on the opening day of the convention last Wednesday, lauded the state PTA for its efforts in pushing for the passage of SB813, the landmark 1983 state education finance and reform bill that provided $2.7 billion in additional money for educational reform over a two-year period.

For three days the delegates, the vast majority of whom are parents of school-age children, attended workshops on topics such as child abuse prevention, development of drug and alcohol prevention programs and current state and national legislative issues.

They listened to speakers at four major issues conferences which, in addition to missing and exploited children, included "Excellence in Education--Making it Happen," "Assertive Discipline for Parents" and Peck's talk on "Stress in Youth--Adolescent Suicide."

Delegates also adopted four other resolutions, including restricting the kinds of video materials available to children in stores, encouraging law-related education in the classrooms, encouraging nuclear education for adults and urging television news programs to refrain from broadcasting election result projections before all the polls have closed.

'Enthusiastic About Future'

"The resolutions will set some direction for us in the coming year," said Donnetta Spink of Arleta, state PTA president-elect. "I sense an overwhelming feeling that the delegates are very enthusiastic about the future, that they'll go home and start working on a lot of things."

"We're focusing on issues, we're really trying to encourage our unit delegates to address issues, to get involved in their communities," observed state board member Dorothy Leonard of San Diego. "I see increasing emphasis on safety of children, missing children and latchkey children."

Despite the heavy agenda of workshops and conferences, the annual gathering of local, council and district PTA delegates wasn't all work and no play.

It was, after all, a convention, with all the typical trappings: colorful PTA pins displayed like campaign medals, funny hats--the delegates from Gardena wore floral wreaths and the host Orange County delegation wore Mickey Mouse ears--and several delegations blowing whistles when the names of their units or representatives were mentioned on the convention floor.

Pep Squad, Drill Team

There was an opening processional by the Los Alamitos High School Olympian Marching Band, delegation open houses in the evenings, a closing-day performance by the Cypress High School pep squad and drill team and the requisite inspirational speaker, former teacher Jim Kern of Jelm, Wyo., who spoke humorously and touchingly on the subject of children.

Through it all there was an obvious sense of camaraderie among the delegates who had gathered in Anaheim on behalf of what one delegate referred to as "our most precious resource."

"I really appreciate the networking that goes on and the ideas you can share with each other for problem solving," said Kathy Cooley, an Anaheim mother of two. "It's a camaraderie of getting together. You can forget the family, the swim team, the Little League and concentrate. It reminds me of those weekend retreats where you get away from it all. It's a shot in the arm, so to speak. We need that: to have this positive support system I feel from the convention."

"It's a great learning experience," said Fran Yeager, also from Anaheim and the mother of two daughters. "It helps you go back revitalized. It really boosts your spirits."

Membership Growing

Delegates at the convention received another boost when informed that, despite a shrinking or stabilizing school-age population, statewide PTA membership had grown for the third year in a row. The California state PTA is now 1.017 million members strong. That's an additional 78,000 members in the past two years.

"I just think parents are more interested in what their children are doing and they're finding that the PTA is an avenue to get something done or to be involved in an issue," said Bobette Bennett, California State PTA president. "They can go to a PTA and work through it. We try to help parents learn. We don't really think of ourselves as teachers, but being advocates for children through parents' awareness of the various issues is, I think, probably what we're really all about."

For nearly 90 minutes on Thursday, John Walsh brought into vivid focus one of the PTA's major concerns, missing and exploited children.

He talked about the 8-year-old girl fished out of the East River in New York with a note pinned to her dress: "I'm leaving my ex-wife the way I found her: childless."

And he talked about the 11-year-old Fort Lauderdale girl who was missing at the same time the Walshes were searching for Adam. The girl was last seen on her front lawn wearing a bikini. The Fort Lauderdale police said she was a runaway.

"They found Christine Anderson. A bulldozer operator unearthed her in a shallow grave about two years ago. The bikini she was last seen wearing was lying next to her. She wasn't alone. There was another 11-year-old girl lying next to her. They had both been raped, strangled and murdered and no one ever identified the other little girl. No one searched for her."

Some Progress Made

Walsh, who has testified before Congress 10 times and in 25 states on behalf of missing and exploited children, acknowledged that progress has been made since he and his wife lost Adam, "this beautiful little boy we waited our whole lives for."

Among the accomplishments are the Missing Children's Bill which, Walsh said, "set up the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) division for unidentified dead and expanded the FBI's NCIC division for missing persons." He added, however, that "only six states have mandated to use it and your state is one that hasn't."

In addition, he said, "we have the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created by the Missing Children's Assistance Bill." A toll-free hot line receives more than 800 calls a day and, Walsh said, the 30 people who work in the center are "swamped."

And the FBI, which previously refused to put information about missing children into the agency's computer, "now enters cases of missing children if they're suspected victims of foul play," Walsh said.

"We've accomplished some things on the federal level, but I'll tell you what, it hasn't translated down to the state level," he said.

While he acknowledged that "California has passed a lot of laws to protect children," Walsh said, "you're lacking in other areas."

Major Missing Children Bills

Currently, he said, there are two major missing children bills before the California Legislature. They are state Sen. Robert Presley's SB391 and Assemblyman Gray Davis' AB606, both of which are being vigorously supported by the California State PTA.

Walsh explained that AB606 would "stiffen the criminal penalties for kidnaping of children; put together a matching reward fund for missing children; distribute missing children posters; establish a toll-free hot line for missing children; mandate a clearinghouse for missing children," such as one in Florida that provides a centralized location within the state for coordinating the search for missing children.

Walsh will testify on the bill's behalf on June 2.

According to Walsh, Presley's bill, SB391, would "mandate the creation of a clearinghouse and mandate entry by all California law enforcement agencies. They must take a missing report of your child immediately and enter it into the state clearinghouse and then into the National Crime Information Center computer."

"I say it's time that law enforcement gave children of this state the same dignity that they give to stolen cars," said Walsh, who criticized the Los Angeles Police Department's procedure for reporting and investigating missing juvenile cases.

Walsh read a copy of a letter written to Presley by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who described the department's procedure.

The procedure includes completing a telephone missing report immediately when a child is reported missing. ("Big deal," Walsh said.) If a missing child has not been located within a reasonable amount of time, usually 24 hours, a formal missing report is completed. ("Any coroner will tell you most small children are murdered within 24 hours," Walsh said.) After a formal missing report is completed the information regarding the missing juvenile is teletyped to nearby agencies. ("What if your kid is on his way to Arizona?" he said). Immediate search is begun when the child is under 11 years of age. ("God forbid your kid is 12," Walsh said.)

Opposed to Mandatory Entry

Reading from the letter, Walsh said, "Basically, he (Gates) is saying they oppose the mandatory entry. Why? 'Had this department been required to enter all missing juvenile information into the NCIC system within 12 hours in 1983 we would have had to make over 16,000 entries and had to remove most of them almost immediately.'

"My God," Walsh said, "I can't think of anything else they could be doing better."

Walsh, who says it takes about 10 minutes to take a report of a missing child and about 15 seconds to purge it once it's in the system, said he asked an FBI official how many stolen cars the state of California by law enters into the system.

"He (Gates) doesn't want to take the time to enter 16,000 missing reports? Last year California entered 16,137 stolen car reports in one month ."

"You can change that," Walsh told the delegates. "Your children should have the dignity of being in that system. Other states have done it and God forbid your child is taken out of this state and if found in another state you may never get the body back. Think of that: Searching the rest of your life."

Officer Willy Wilson, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, acknowledged that Gates sent the letter to Presley and that the department's position on "immediately putting missing juveniles into the NCIC is that it would be a a great burden and cost to us. We would need as many as 20 additional clerical workers to input that information into the system.

"Also, we're aware that Chicago experimented with putting the information into NCIC within 24 hours after the juveniles were reported missing, but that didn't do anything to accomplish the return of the child within seven days. The Los Angeles Police Department inputs into NCIC after seven days and 97% of those who are reported missing have returned home before then."

Abducted by Parents

Wilson added that "we're also aware on a nationwide basis there may be, according to the Federal Law Enforcement Center, an estimated 70 to 90 kids per year who are abducted by criminals for criminal activity. (But) the majority (of missing children) are abducted by parents in regard to custody disputes over the child."

Walsh, who now has a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son, left the delegates with a final message. It was the only time during his 90-minute talk that Adam's father developed a catch in his voice.

"I'm telling you this: The real victim isn't here. That little boy is somewhere else. He's in a better place. He's saying, 'Daddy, don't forget me.' "

"I'm not the victim," Walsh added, "I'm the heartbroken father left behind trying to tell you what you can do about it so it doesn't happen to you."

great power to affect the lives of children if you use it."

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