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When children are fingerprinted

Society is in profound need of examining itself when it goes to the lengths of fingerprinting young children. That is now occurring in at least a dozen communities around the United States as parents have become concerned about reports that thousands of children run away from their homes each year, become lost, or are kidnapped.

Taking fingerprints as a record of identification would seem to be reasonable - provided that such a program is entirely voluntary and left to the discretion of each family. Surely no opprobrium should attach to any family or child declining to participate in such a program. And since it is police departments that usually do the actual fingerprinting (given their expertise) it makes sense to keep children away from rooms where criminals or suspects are held. In other words, the atmosphere should be as informal and nonthreatening as possible. That may even mean that officers probably would not need to wear guns or other weapons while doing the fingerprinting.

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As far as the records themselves are concerned, it is best to turn these over directly to the parents, as proposed by civil libertarian groups, rather than keeping them on file in the police department. There is no valid reason for police agencies maintaining records on persons - in this case children - who have no criminal involvement.

There still remains a disturbing aspect in all this, however. To what extent is society tolerating the type of incidents that have led to the need for fingerprinting in the first place? Would children run away from a home where affection and mutual trust prevailed? And would child-snatching occur in a legal climate where potential criminals knew that there would be swift and no-nonsense punishment for such an offense? In this connection the court system should be firmer in enforcing existing federal and state statutes against kidnapping, while states and local jurisdictions that do not have such laws should enact them.

Finally, the entertainment industry and the press have a vital responsibility in all this to avoid the type of sensationalism that nurtures public fear. It is prudent for communities to take proper steps to protect their children. It is unconscionable to exploit such legitimate concerns for financial gain.

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