Missing Children: How “Cause-Related Marketing” Fuels the Scandal
by John Edward Gill
Geraldo Rivera was happy.
He had John Walsh, host of FOX-TV’s “America’s Most Wanted,” on his show promoting telephone credit cards with pictures of missing children on them. A local missing child group in Florida organized that program and its director was with Walsh.
“I can’t tell you how much I admire them,” Geraldo said of Walsh and his companion. “I thank these two guys who are helping us make our children safer.”
He then gave out names and addresses of several local missing child groups and complemented a national group based in Alexandria, Virginia. Of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (National Center), he said, “I love these guys, too.”
Earlier in his show, aired during August, 1997, he mentioned the telephone company making such cards and the oil company which sold them through its gas stations. He didn’t mention that such cards don’t find missing children, though. They have a child’s small, postage stamp-sized picture on them and, just like on postcards, these pictures are outdated and hard to read.
Also, he didn’t mention that the National Center and approximately 35 other similar agencies are not law enforcement agencies and don’t look for missing children.
Such cards are part of that National Center’s “cause-related marketing” campaign, a promotional program designed to raise private funds. With seminars in its Alexandria office, that National Center presents companies with useless child identification programs that receive much publicity, but don’t find children. These programs include fingerprinting, videotaping, DNA fingerprinting, and pictures of children on milk cartons, utility company bills, highway billboards, grocery bags, electronic bulletin boards, and now phone credit cards.
Fingerprints dont help you locate the child, said Jim Green, crime prevention officer of the Lees Summit, Missouri, police department. All they can do is be used to identify the child.
Yet such programs produce contributions from those corporations to the National Center.
“‘Cause-related marketing’ is the National Center’s main program, not finding children,” said Nikki Abbott, founder of Services for the Missing, in Gibbsboro, New Jersey. “They don’t look for children. They look for money.” Abbott founded her group in the early 1980s.
Funded with eight million dollars annually from the U. S. Justice Department and about the same amount from private corporations, the National Center does not send search and rescue teams into the field to look for children.
Newspaper reporters and law enforcement officials confirm that local and state police and F.B.I. agents actually look for abducted or lost children. They have trained personnel with bloodhounds, helicopters, infra-red sensors, night vision (or “starlight”) scopes, four-wheel drive vehicles, boats, maps, etc., which the National Center doesn’t have.
Even some of the National Center’s own officials concede that local law enforcement handles missing child cases. When learning from police about a missing child, “the case manager assigned to the case continues to follow NCMEC’s standard operating procedures until informed by law enforcement as to the resolution of the case,” said Ruben Rodriguez, head of the National Center’s Informational Analysis Unit.
He didnt say what those operating procedures were.
Other officials concur.
“We don’t do investigation,” said Ben Ermini, director of case management for the National Center. “We don’t go into it as thoroughly as the local authorities.”
“NCMEC (National Center) is dependent on law enforcement and parents to let us know about a recovery/location (of a missing child), said John Rabun, vice president of the National Center.
And on that same Geraldo show, Geraldo asked Ms. Gay Le-Clerc, New York Director of the National Center, What can a parent do (when a child is missing)?
We want them to call police first, 911, she said.
So, despite claims that it has found more than 47,000 children since 1984, the National Center hasn’t recovered one child.
“They just call the NCIC (National Crime Information Center, run by the F.B.I.) and state police to find out who is gone and who has come home,” Abbott continued. “Then they issue ‘recovery’ reports based on what law enforcement tells them.”
Conservative philosophy of the Reagan administration encouraged the National Center to use private enterprise, not police, to seemingly find children. Corporate executives soon joined its Board of Directors, with the National Center holding those “cause-related marketing” seminars to teach businesses how to make money from child tragedies.
“The National Center has worked closely with hundreds of corporate partners throughout the country to help us in our efforts to assist the families of missing and exploited children,” said Ernie Allen, president of that National Center, in its January, 1990, edition of his newsletter, At The Center. “Corporate partners have made significant monetary contributions, distributed photographs of missing children, disseminated safety tips, and implemented cause-related marketing campaigns to bring greater public awareness to these important issues.”
Such “marketing” actually began immediately after the National Center opened in May, 1984. By June, 1985, it had a commitment from Dole Packaged Foods to mail two pages of advertising inserts with coupons to over forty-three million households in America during the week of September 15, 1985.
President Reagan’s picture was on top of one page; four coupons were at the bottom. Citizens were asked to buy Dole’s products, send in those coupons, and receive up to $1.60 worth of coupons for other Dole Products.
“Help us find our missing children,” the President
was quoted as saying, next to his picture. Dole then proclaimed: “President Reagan is voicing the plea of thousands of Americans who want to stop the growing epidemic of missing and exploited children. Now, you can join Dole and respond to this call for help.”
Headlines for the ad read “Support the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children with Dole.” In smaller print was the sales copy: “Bring in Dole coupons, and Help Bring Missing Children Home.” It released a statement from the President, on White House stationery, dated July 10th, 1985. “I am proud to recognize and commend Dole Food Company’s efforts on behalf of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Reagan said.
An advertising executive for this promotion invited local missing children agencies to join local supermarkets in “Color Safety Photo Day” sessions in their stores to photograph children.
Through its newsletters, first called At The Center and now Frontline , there are lists of new members to the Corporate Partnership Roll, businesses who gave money or services and received publicity and/or pictures of missing children to help sell their products.
On the front page of its newsletter in April, 1987, for instance, there was a picture of then-Vice President George Bush with officials from both the National Center and Worlds of Wonder (WOW), a toy distributor.
Next to Bush was Donald Kingsborough, CEO of WOW, who held Teddy Ruxpin, a teddy bear who was the official “spokesbear” of the National Center. Ruxpin was mentioned in the photo caption, and it’d been given to various speakers and politicians at two national conventions on missing children held in Chicago in 1986 and 1987. The National Center claimed WOW “is our largest corporate contributor, helping us provide the Center’s vital services at no charge to families.”
Such free “vital services” weren’t explained.
However, in its October 31, 1988, edition, Business Week reported that Teddy Ruxpin was made in mainland China by 12-year-old girls working 14 hours a day while earning between ten dollars and 31 dollars a month. Working at their sewing machines seven days a week, the girls were ordered to put in one or two 24-hour shifts each month, with only two meal breaks a day.
Kadar Enterprises Ltd, the manufacturer, set the work rules and World of Wonder washed its hands of the labor conditions. Because Kadar is a subcontractor, “You don’t have much to say,” said John A. McCarthy, operations vice president of WOW, in San Francisco. “If you get into the middle of their business, they’re offended.”
Teddy Ruxpin bears sold for about 60 dollars each in America.
Sometimes the girls slept two or three to a bed in a factory dormitory, which was in Shekou, China, about 50 minutes by hydrofoil from Hong Kong. Business Week, in its article headlined, “Long, Hard Days — At Pennies An Hour,” said that workers could be blacklisted and fired if they didn’t work overtime. Written by Dinah Lee and Rose Brady, the article also said Kadar made Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls for WOW.
“We can work these girls all day and all night, while in Hong Kong it would be impossible,” said a Kadar executive on the Shekou shop floor. “We couldn’t get this kind of labor, even if we were willing to meet Hong Kong wage levels.”
President Reagan gave Worlds of Wonder a 1987 Presidential Award for Private Sector Initiatives. That company also received a commendation from the President’s Child Safety partnership “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the safety of America’s children.”
They quickly became the National Center To Exploit Missing Children, said Abbott.
Formally introduced in the January, 1990, edition of At The Center, “cause-related marketing” dominated most of the stories published in that issue. The front page featured a picture of the public relations director of a New England-based security and alarm company. Julia Cartwright, the Center’s media director, stood next to him. A story said that since 1985 that company had distributed pictures of children and that its public relations person was the first executive “loaned” to the National Center as part of its “Executive Loan Program.”
His duties were not explained though.
“One of the features of our cooperative effort (with corporations) will be a monthly all-day presentation at our headquarters structured for corporate executives, staff, and others to come and learn about the Center, its mission, the benefits and how to’s of cause-related marketing…,” that newsletter said.
Four months later the National Center promoted those seminars again with another full page in its newsletter, asking companies and citizens to join its Child Seekers Network, for a donation of $25 or more. There was a coupon to cut out and mail to its offices, but no specific details on what this Network did other than urging members to hold their own “cause-related marketing” seminars for their companies and communities.
That coupon did say, however, that the National Center was chartered to protect children from victimization outside the family.
That New England company organized a Child Seekers Week in May, 1990, to raise money for the National Center. Teddy Ruxpin, two years after that Business Week article, was displayed in many of its stores.
That same newsletter, dated May, 1990, introduced parents to DNA blood “fingerprinting” as a means of identifying their children. Called “Birth Mark,” such a DNA blood sample could provide “valuable information on child identification.” Under a headline, “National Center Recommends Use of `Birth Mark’ as Child Identification Tool, an article mentioned a Maryland medical laboratory which sold such a process to hospitals and pediatricians. There was a picture of that laboratory’s director and a notice that it made in-kind contributions to the National Center.
“For information on how to order this product (a DNA blood sample) for your child, please contact the National Center’s Development and Education Division,” that newsletter said.
Officials at the National Center would not say why they advertised private products with government money.
“DNA has been promoted by the National Center and other questionable groups for a long time,” said Abbott recently. “Nobody ever asks if DNA can find a child alive. It only identifies bodies.”
Always mindful of publicity about missing children, and not wanting to miss opportunities for “cause-related marketing,” the National Center sometimes promotes cases where children were not missing, but perished from child abuse, accidents, date rape and homicide, or from other causes.
For instance, Christina Holt, 7, was reported abducted by a stranger on October 22, 1994, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Three days later Walsh and film crews from “America’s Most Wanted” came down, despite suspicions from local police that the little girl was killed at home by her parents.
“It drives me crazy when police and the media speculate about what might have happened,” Walsh said. “The girl is missing and that’s all that matters to me.”
A day later police found samples of the child’s blood in the family home and charged her stepfather and mother with murder. A jury convicted her mother of murder on April 11, 1995, and another jury, in a separate trial, found her husband guilty of murder in December 1996. Both were sent to jail for life.
In a brash act of such “marketing,” the National Center dedicated an electronic bulletin board, or kiosk, with videos of missing children to little Christina.
“Today is exactly one year since Christina Holt was reported missing and found murdered,” said Nancy McBride, head of the Adam Walsh Center, which is now part of the National Center. “I believe Christina Holt was looking for a safe place in this world. It seems in her short life she didn’t find one.” She made her remarks at a press conference dedicating that kiosk.
Geraldo Rivera never asked Walsh how a fatal tragedy of child abuse in the home could be called a “lost child” case.
And no reporters asked how a child abuse victim’s name could be used on that “missing” child information center, erected in a Florida airport.
In its report to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services in April 1995, the U. S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect mentioned Christina Holt as a child “who died at the hands of parents or caretakers.
But that press conference yielded nice results for the National Center. News stories about the kiosk mentioned Walsh, his television show, the National Center, IBM, which donated some of the equipment, and said another private company had donated money for that project.
Using child tragedies for publicity and profit has always been one of Walsh’s priorities since he helped found the National Center. In January 1986, for instance, Lindsay Blake Householder, two-weeks-old, supposedly vanished from Winchester, Virginia. Her mother claimed stranger abduction, so Walsh and his National Center became interested because the case had generated publicity.
Three weeks later her mother confessed to killing the child and police recovered tiny Lindsay’s remains. Her mother eventually went to jail.
But, in one of its first acts of “cause-related marketing,” a month after her mother’s confession and the finding of her child’s remains, Lindsay Blake Householder’s picture appeared in a Missing Children Bulletin published by the Illinois State Police.
That Bulletin gave the National Center’s phone number, telling anyone who had seen Lindsay to contact Walsh and company. “Cause-related marketing” and the publicity it produces has caused some child care experts to oppose such programs as scaring children needlessly and misrepresenting the missing children problem.
On May 7, 1986, for instance, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial entitled Where Are The Children?
Much of the responsibility for public misperception of the missing children problem goes to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children…. In 1984, the Center proclaimed that 50,000 children were being abducted every year. That figure was cited and recited thereafter.
Having stoked the present missing children mania, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is not doing as much as it should to calm the fears it raised. No one would argue that parents shouldnt be informed of threats to their children, but such information should not be sensationalized merely to stir up public interest.
Individual child care experts had begun to speak out also.
On Friday, April 11, 1986, the “Today” show featured the late Dr. Lee Salk, questioning how many children were gone and saying he felt fingerprints didn’t bring home children.
This show aired when a national group of shopping centers held a weeklong campaign to fingerprint children.
“Fingerprinting of kids,” Bryant Gumbel, the show’s host, said. “It’s happening at your local shopping center. Our question is, is it worthwhile or is it just frightening your child?
“Joining us this morning is John Walsh. In 1981, Mr. Walshs six-year-old son Adam was abducted from a shopping center; two weeks later Adam’s dead body was found. Since then, Mr. Walsh has founded the Adam Walsh research center, which aids the parents of missing children.
“Also joining us this morning is Dr. Lee Salk. Dr. Salk is professor of psychology at the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center and has some problems with the fingerprinting effort…. Dr. Salk…what’s wrong with it?”
“First of all, the statistics do not justify all the fear and anxiety. What concerns me about this is that the vast numbers that are presented to people on missing children are guesstimates, at best; nobody really has accurate statistics,” Dr. Salk told him.
“Because we group runaways in that also?” Gumbel asked.
“Yes,” answered Dr. Salk. “Because, you see, parents believe that their children are about to be abducted if they walk out of the house. The facts are that there were less than 100 children who were reported legitimately — if I can use the expression — kidnapped.
“The rest are children who have run away from home. The majority of missing children, 90 to 95 percent of them, are runaways. And some of them are abducted during custody battles in an attempt to gain children….
“But you see, the anxiety that pervades this country about this, I think, is creating, putting children in an atmosphere of violence; they’re deeply concerned about the violence. And I cannot tell you how many parents have called me up in recent weeks telling me their children are waking up in the middle of the night screaming because they dream of seeing their picture on the side of a milk container.”
Gumbel spoke of fingerprinting and Walsh admitted it didn’t prevent abductions. “It’s a means of identification, if the child is found alive primarily,” Walsh told him.
Dr. Salk then mentioned a study by the American College of Pathologists which found only 68 unidentified bodies of people under the age of 18 in 1983.
Gumbel didn’t ask Walsh where his figures came from when Walsh had said in the past there were thousands of unidentified bodies of children buried each year. Gumbel did ask Dr. Salk about shopping centers and their safety programs. “Are parents being misinformed about what’s going on at these shopping centers?” Gumbel asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” Dr. Salk said.
“Suspicious of the motives?” Gumbel asked.
“Well, I don’t think anybody could question that sort of thing. I’d love to see if they would be willing to take ten percent of their profits for the week and give it to services that help children.
I’m concerned with the overall effect this has on our nation’s population,” Dr. Salk answered. “I see myself as an advocate of children and I’m deeply concerned about the fact that parents are in a state of panic. And this panic is reflected in their relationship with their children.”
“But in this case, isn’t fingerprinting a bit like chicken soup — I mean, it couldn’t hurt?” Gumbel asked him.
“Well, I think it can hurt, because it puts children in an atmosphere where violence is really surrounding them. We really frighten them with something that does not exist,” Dr. Salk said.
And the late Dr. Benjamin Spock agreed.
“The current rage for fingerprinting is ridiculous,” said the author of Baby and Child Care, among other books about children. “You’re going to scare the bejeebers out of ten million children and I’ve seen no evidence that it works. A kidnapper doesn’t say to a child, `Have you been fingerprinted?'”
Dr. Spock came out against fingerprinting of children, public displays of missing children, and inflated figures on child abduction, all of which could scare children, he said. He also felt that seeing so many pictures of missing children in public could have a negative effect on the imagination of a child.
“I just don’t think that fingerprinting will help very much to recover children and I think that it’s more likely to scare children and I am against it,” he said.
He pointed out that such fingerprinting and related publicity on missing children could hurt children in safe families, where there is no threat of parental abduction.
“Children have very morbid imaginations and they can be upset by all kinds of things that are not real threats to them at all,” Dr. Spock explained. “I think a study was made years ago of what children thought about tonsillectomy…. One child I remember thought that the surgeon slit the throat from ear-to-ear, tipped the head back and reached down into the throat to remove the tonsils. This is a pretty awesome picture that no adult would possibly imagine and no parent would think that this is what’s in the back of a child’s mind.”
Dr. Spock gave another example of a child’s active imagination, this time about a young boy who was moved from one ward of a hospital to another ward. “He worried himself sick because he thought his parents wouldn’t be able to find him because they left him in one ward and he pictured them coming back, looking for him there, and then, after searching around, going home because they didn’t know where he was,” he said.
“Again, parents would never think of this as one of the things children’s morbid imaginations can pick up,” he continued. “But I think that children reading about kidnappings and seeing pictures of missing children is going to work on their imaginations even if they’re in a very healthy family situation.”
In addition, Dr. Spock felt that fingerprinting would not help recover teenagers who run away from home. “The only good that fingerprinting will do, that I see, is to identify a child who has been murdered,” he explained. “They say that fingerprints deteriorate very fast after death….”
Dr. Spock felt that policemen conducting fingerprinting programs could make children “worrisome.” To children, he pointed out, “Police are not their protectors. Police are the people who punish you, or punish adults, or punish other people when they have done something wrong. So I think that it (fingerprinting) has the wrong effect on children.”
Families and children could be scared by inflated numbers of missing children, too, he claimed. “I think that the numbers are very scary unless you know that they’re highly inflated and that most of them aren’t true disappearances. They aren’t killings. And they aren’t kidnappings.”
Dr. Spock felt it would be reassuring to parents to know that the cases of children who really disappeared are very small compared to the published figures. “I think if they (government officials) are going to discuss such figures at all they should put out non-alarmist figures,” he said.
Yet, “cause-related marketing” continues, with local civic groups and non-profit agencies working with the National Center by offering child identification days, videotaping, fingerprinting, and photographing children.
Florida hospitals now take DNA samples of newborn children. Salt Lake County Sheriffs deputies recently provided child identification kids with pictures, medical information and DNA samples for parents to use with their children. Civic groups near Dallas, Texas, distributed fingerprinting kits to more than 5,000 children. A regional non-profit missing child group in Canada even tookfootprints of small children last spring, while Parent-Teacher Associations around the country still fingerprint children.
And a national video rental chain has sponsored free videotaping of children during August for the past nine years. Endorsed by the National Center, this program taped youngsters, claiming such videos would come in handy should children become lost or abducted. That program received much publicity.
But no child has been found through videotaping.
Walsh, a one-time lifeguard and sales executive for a Florida hotel, once publicly called Dr. Spock “a self-promoter.”
And, still ignoring criticism, Walsh, along with several partners, recently promoted a company selling DNA fingerprinting kits. Parents buy a kit with materials to take samples from a child’s mouth, send them to that company, and a medical laboratory then analyzes the samples to produce a DNA profile. The process costs about 100 dollars. Newspapers carried stories of him publicizing such kits.
Also, hes received much press coverage for promoting a Victims Rights Amendment to the Constitution. It would allow parents and relatives to witness all legal proceedings against anyone accused of murdering their children.
Passing and ratifying such an amendment would take years, therefore giving it much press, Abbott said. But its only good after children are killed. How many police would it put on the street to look for lost or abducted children? And how many new runaway shelters would it finance?