From Milk Cartons to Megabytes

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It has been 12 years since 3-year-old Laura Bradbury of Huntington Beach vanished during a family camping trip at Joshua Tree National Monument, sparking a nationwide search and a change in the way the police and public view missing children.

The Bradbury case and several other highly publicized child abductions in the early 1980s heightened awareness and spawned an unprecedented campaign to place the pictures of missing children on billboards, shopping bags and milk cartons.

In recent years, however, organizations that help find missing children have shifted their strategy, focusing less on milk-carton mug shots and more on technology and advanced graphics.

"Computer technology allows us to disseminate information very quickly," said Kathy DePeri, Southern California executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Orange County.

"The time element is so important. Those first 24 hours are crucial," DePeri said. "It can save a child's life."

The new tactics also are aimed at addressing criticism that constant exposure to photos of missing youngsters on billboards and milk cartons frightens young children and causes undue community panic.

"We work very hard to put the issue in perspective and not to prey on fear . . . especially in the minds of children when they see these images at the breakfast table," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center, which stopped using milk cartons several years ago.

"We still want to display the photos for the public to see, but in a positive way, not a frightening one," Allen said.

California is on the leading edge in using the new technology. In August, Orange County's John Wayne Airport became one of only two sites west of the Mississippi with a computerized kiosk dedicated to the cause. One of only 20 in the nation, the kiosk displays pictures of missing children and provides safety tips to travelers. The other western site is in Washington.

Photos of missing children from all over the country are in the kiosk database, including cases from Los Angeles and Long Beach, DePeri said.

"The kiosks need to be in a high-traffic area, such as an airport. We're looking for contacts in Los Angeles. We'd love to have one at the Los Angeles airport," she said.

Six of the children featured at the kiosks have been found, officials said.

In 1995, more than 26,000 children were reported missing in Los Angeles County, according to center statistics. More than 24,000, nearly 93%, were recovered, they say.

State Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) pushed through legislation this year creating a World Wide Web site that will display pictures and perhaps even videos of abducted children. The site will go online early next year. The National Center maintains its own Web site at http://www.missingkids.org

Law enforcement and child services experts say that new technology lets them distribute photos just hours after abductions are reported, and state-of-the-art graphics enable them to "age" images of children who vanished years ago.

The speed of computer networking is a big advantage over printing photos on milk cartons, which usually take weeks to produce and distribute.

After her 1984 disappearance, Laura Bradbury's photo appeared on millions of fliers, T-shirts and billboards around the world. Thousands of volunteers searched for her in the desert, but their efforts failed. Two years later, hikers stumbled across her remains.

Since then, groups working on behalf of missing children have developed ways of distributing information quickly to as many people as possible without causing unwarranted fear or anxiety.

Many experts now acknowledge that billboard and milk-carton campaigns proved simplistic and ineffective.

Besides relying more on technology, groups are also focusing attention on educating children and parents about abduction-prevention techniques.

"There has been a change from simply 'stranger danger' to empowering kids to protect themselves," said William G. Steiner, a child welfare expert on the National Center's board of directors.

"We don't want to get people's attention through hysteria or sensationalism," Steiner said. "But by the same token, we recognize the importance of reaching people and that the media can be a very powerful tool."

Steiner, who is also an Orange County supervisor, was instrumental in bringing the computer kiosk to John Wayne Airport. A second kiosk will be added next year, one of 500 being installed across the nation by the center and underwritten by the Pizza Hut restaurant chain.

More than 3,000 people have scrolled through the Orange County kiosk's database, which includes photos of missing children, biographical information and safety tips.

The National Center's Allen said the computer network "overcomes the barrier of time" by allowing officials to download new photos as soon as they are available and to target distribution to specific regions.

In August, the center was preparing to place a photo of missing 2-year-old C.T. Turner on the network when the Mission Viejo boy's body was discovered near his home, a day and a half after his disappearance.

"Time is the enemy," Allen said. "Every day a child is missing, the likelihood for recovery is less and less."

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