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Child-protection site raises concerns

A search service has raised concerns that the Net is being used to exploit kidnapping fears.

A new online service for the parents of missing children has raised concerns among child-service organizations that the Internet is being used for profit by exploiting fears of kidnapping.

The BirthNet World Wide Child Registry said the service is intended to help parents save precious time by posting information about their children before they are kidnapped. The service allows parents to create a Web page for their child with a color photograph and a physical description in case he or she is ever kidnapped or lost.

BirthNet will also post a $5,000 reward for information leading to the safe return of a registered child. For subscriptions to the service, parents are charged $32.95 for the first year and $19.95 for each year thereafter.

Five thousand children are kidnapped by strangers every year, according to the Justice Department, and about 300 are never found. As a result, many child-search organizations have been formed across the country in recent years, offering their services before and after a child has run away or been abducted.

But directors of several non-profit organizations who work to find kidnapped children questioned the effectiveness of BirthNet's system, as well as its ethics. "I'm really wary of scare tactics and making money off of putting fear in people," said Trish Williams, executive director of Childquest International, reflecting the sentiments of others.

BirthNet says that only the parents or law enforcement agencies given an identification code by the family can get access to the information stored on the service. The page also does not include personal information such as the child's name or address that could be abused. The idea is simply that an updated description will be available immediately to police if a child disappears.

"The purpose of this service is to provide the immediate means of getting the hands on information necessary to recover a child, rather than a parent searching for a photograph or struggling to describe the child to an authority," BirthNet founder Tom Gregory said.

Those who run other organizations, however, say that providing such information on the Net before a child is kidnapped is still unwise because nothing is completely out of reach from hackers on the Internet--including potential molesters and other criminals.

"From our standpoint, we do not recommend that parents give out this kind of information about their children," said Robert Walcutt, executive director of The Heidi Search Center. "We don't keep any data here, such as fingerprints, because we feel the only one that needs that information is the parent. It might very well be secure, but like anything, if it's on the Net someone else can find it."

Some question Gregory's motives more than his methods. "Is that where it all begins? If you register, we'll look for your child, and if you don't register, we won't look?" asked Williams of Childquest.

BirthNet is not the first use of the Net to find missing children. Photo and information posted to the Net by Child Search helped find two teenage girls just last week in Hollywood.

But director Marilyn Ward said Child Search would not work with another organization that charged for its services. "We believe in protecting children, but that to me sounds like a commercial endeavor," she said.

Gregory said the fees are required to pay for the service and defends his motives. "There is no faster means of disseminating the absolutely vital information in the event that this becomes necessary," he said. "All of the cries of missing children organizations throughout the world are answered by the BirthNet Web page."

The BirthNet founder said he conceived of the service after he had thought his son had disappeared from his bus stop after school one day. The incident turned out to be a false alarm, but Gregory said it inspired him to create BirthNet.

"I have never felt so helpless in my life," Gregory said. "Thankfully, my child wasn't endangered, but having been in this situation, I can only imagine how much more grave this situation becomes."