Children of the Underground

What can a father do when his child disappears into a well-organized network of "safe houses," where the child's name - and sometimes appearance - may be changed, and scores of people around the country and the world work passionately to keep the child securely hidden?

He can file a missing person report with local police, and ask that they investigate; he can call the FBI, and ask that his child's photograph be put in the bureau's national computer database.

He can dial the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's toll-free hotline, for information and tips.

Or he can call any number of "child-finders," like Mark Miller, a Latrobe native who now runs the American Association for Missing Children, a non-profit group based in Texas, that tracks down children for free.

Or, if he's wealthy, he can hire a private investigator, who might charge upwards of $1,000 a day.

But chances are slim that even after doing all this, he will ever find his child.

Hunting for missing children is an immensely frustrating task. There are 350,000 parental abductions in any given year, and tracking those cases are not a top priority for overburdened police departments. Often, police officers don't even comply with laws that require them to file missing children reports with the National Crime Information Center. The Center is a computer database run by the FBI that allows agencies across the country to cross-check information about fugitives.

And if a child is located, legal procedures for return to the custodial parent vary from state to state, which can confuse left-behind parents and their lawyers - and cause delays that sometimes allow the abductor and her children to escape again.

The obstacles only get tougher when missing-children investigators cross paths with Faye Yager, who is skilled at hiding families and keeping them hidden.

Charles Pickett, a case manager with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, shrugs when asked how many of his cases involved organized underground networks like Yager's.

His group doesn't keep those kinds of records. A missing child is a missing child, regardless of who does the hiding; a federal arrest warrant is all he needs to proceed.

It is Pickett's organization - NCMEC - that is most widely known; its name and hotline number appears on postcards sent to millions of households every week. But the center, which was established by Congress in 1984, doesn't actually investigate cases.

Rather, this Arlington, Va.-based non-profit group, funded with taxpayer dollars, serves as a kind of clearinghouse for many of the more difficult cases. A team of former police and social service agency officials is constantly in touch with federal and local authorities, sharing leads. Its Web page features "age-enhanced" computerized photos of missing children. It is linked online with missing childrens' clearinghouses in 49 states and to authorities overseas.

For all of its work, the NCMEC is still criticized by some women's groups and domestic violence organizations for not distinguishing among different types of abductions - the vast majority that are legitimate, vengeance-motivated "child-snatchings" and the smaller number of more complex cases involving sexual and physical abuse allegations.

The hunters all "use as their criteria . . . a valid custody order," says Rita Smith, director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. A custody order, she claims, is no guarantee of a good parent; she cites studies that conclude that many fathers who get joint or full custody of their children have a history of domestic violence.

Such arguments don't matter to John Rabun, an NCMEC official, who points out that the center is under a Congressional mandate to list all missing children in its computer registry, and to report to police all leads it receives on its national hotline.

"My job," he says simply, "is to find people and get them back to the court of jurisdiction."