Issue: Should parents voluntarily create detailed identification records
(including fingerprints) on their children in anticipation of possible
runaway problems or abductions? (1) Yes. You can never tell when terrible
things will happen to a child, so its best to be prepared.(2) No. The
vast majority of missing children are not abducted. Whether abducted or
not, fingerprinting will do no good. It wastes time and money and pushes
us that much closer to the creation of the Orwellian National Data Center
that Congress rejected fifteen years ago.
BACKGROUND: As of early 1983, 11 states had launched programs to
fingerprint children.( These were New York, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, New
Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Connecticut,
Rhode Island, Kansas, Illinois, and Indiana.) Most of this activity was
stimulated by the passage of the Missing Children Act in October 1982.
What the new law did was to legitimize the use of the FBI’s national
computer network,the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) for
All of the programs are voluntary. In some cases the police
departments retain the records, while in others the fingerprint cards are
turned over to the parents for safekeeping. The apparent purpose of the
program is to help provide positive identification to link either children
picked up, or bodies recovered, with missing person notices.
Every year about 1 million children are reported missing. Of these
most, about 800,000, are away from home for less than two weeks. About
150,000 of the total missing are abducted; of these two thirds are abducted
by a divorced parent.
Some of the reasons behind the missing children are not pretty.
According to an article in Parade, “about 35 percent of runaways leave home
because of incest, 53 percent because of physical neglect. The rest are
“throwaways,” children kicked out or simply abandoned by parents who move
away. Every state has laws against incest, child abuse, abandonment, child
pornography and the procuring of children, but they are rarely enforced.”
POINT: Conscientious parents should have their childrens’ fingerprints
recorded to help in the event of an abduction; they shouldn’t wait until after
something terrible happens, but should take reasonable steps now.
Thousands of children are runaways, and in many cases it is all but
impossible to determine clearly who they really are. People change, but
fingerprints don’t. Well-intentioned but misguided civil libertarians worry
about Big Brother. But they tend to overlook the obvious benefits of the
program and concentrate on wildly imaginative fantasies about Big Brother.
If they would come down to earth once in a while, and visit with and share
the anguish of a family of an abducted child, they would quickly change
their attitudes. Besides, in most cases the police do not keep the records,
the parents do.
COUNTERPOINT: Absent some showing that the fingerprinting will actually
help keep children safe and help capture criminals who harm or abduct them,
parents should refuse to have their children fingerprinted. In promoting
the child fingerprinting program, police officials tend to be vague about
how the program will increase the average child’s safety. How does it
improve children’s safety to be fingerprinted? Surely, it may help
identify a body, but that is not much help. Besides, dental records do the
same thing and probably do a better job. People forget that this program is
geared to eventually entering the child’s identification data into the
National Crime Information Center. That is a criminal records databank, and
it could be very harmful to a child in the future to have what many
employers will automatically take to be a “criminal record.” And that is
not far fetched. In April 1983 the Congress’ General Accounting Office
released a report saying that in some states children picked up as runaways
are jailed along with real criminals.GAO found that in five states
(Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oregon) 39
percent of the juveniles incarcerated had not been charged with a serious
offense, despite federal standards requiring that. Running away from home,
shoplifting and other minor thefts made up most of the offenses. Even
advocates admit to the possibility of a stigma.
A PTA Council President in Virginia spoke out in favor of the
program: “I can’t think at this point of a practical reason for not having
your fingerprints taken. It seems to me the higher the percentage of the
population that has its fingerprints on file, the less stigma will be
attached to it.”
Another mother, as her child was being fingerprinted, told a New
York Times reporter, “Unless you’re planning a life of crime for your
child,I can’t see why any parent would object.”
If we are really serious about reducing the runaway problem, we
should demand that our police officials start looking closely into the
family situations from which the runaway came from. If there is evidence
of incest or abuse, the offendor should be prosecuted. Maybe if more
abusive parents got that message, they would be less inclined to do the
things that cause the vast majority of runaway cases in the first place.
o Do you think that the police will be more effective in locating missing
children if there are copies of their fingerprints on record?
o Do you think that there is any problem with having your own records
stored in a criminal record computer system? Would anyone assume from such
records that you have done something wrong?
o If a child runs away from home because of incest or physical abuse,
should the police help put him back in that home?
o Do you think that the voluntary fingerprinting program will make the next
generation of American citizens less reluctant to let government keep more
records on them? Or will it have the opposite effect and make people used
to having this kind of record kept?
Fingerprinting of Children Spreading, New York Times,
February 22, 1983
Fingerprinting the Kids Won’t Solve the Problem, The Fairfax
Journal (editorial), April 15, 1983, p.A6
Reston Kids Ink Up for Fingerprints, Adrian Higgins, The
Fairfax Journal, September 19, 1983, p.A1
Jersey County Fingerprints Pupils, Franklin Whitehouse, The
New York Times, January 26, 1983, p.B1
Alexandria Cops To Fingerprint School Kids, Joe O’Neill, The
Fairfax Journal, February 23, 1983, p.A4
Child Abductions A Rising Concern, Associated Press, The New
York Times, December 5, 1983
Finding Missing Children, The Washington Post (editorial),
May 28, 1982