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'Adam': one family's anguish and their efforts to change bureaucracy

More than 1 million children a year in America are reported missing. And around 50,000 are never heard from again by their parents. Until recently, the search for missing children was almost totally in the hands of the local police, unless there were a kidnap note or some evidence to prove to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the disappearance was more than just a lost child or a runaway. Even stolen cars seemed to get more immediate handling.

Then in July 1981 six-year-old Adam Walsh disappeared from the toy department of a department store in Hollywood, Fla., while his mother was shopping in another department. Adam (NBC, Monday, Oct. 10, 9-11 p.m.) is the true, excruciating story of the search for Adam by his parents, friends, and relatives - and the local police.

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It is the even more anguished tale of his parents' reaction as they try to transcend their grief and mount a national campaign - in and out of the halls of Congress - to change the federal law so that missing children can be quickly added to the FBI's national crime computers. ''Adam'' does not change the names of anybody involved; there is no attempt to soften the absorbing story.

''Hill Street Blues'' Emmy winner Daniel J. Travanti plays the father, John Walsh, with harrowing intensity. It is a skillfully controlled performance which alternates between quiet restraint and understandable outbursts of desperation. At one crucial moment in the story, Travanti breaks down completely, lashing out savagely at every inanimate object in the room in an unforgettable scene of sorrow and fury.

Be prepared for tears of sympathy. But also be prepared for tears of empathy as the Walshes' attempt to turn their tragic grief into constructive paths, determined to honor the memory of their son with new missing-children legislation that would allow instant national communication about missing youngsters to be cleared through the FBI.

Soon after the tragedy the Walshes' solid marriage seemed to be suffering as the couple realized that the only thing they had in common was their grief and their anger. So they decided to join forces to fight for a change in the way the national bureaucracy handles missing-children cases. In this joint constructive effort, they managed to rekindle their own relationship while at the same time substituting a kind of joyous satisfaction for the feelings that had obsessed them.

They struggled to tell their story through the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children and through their constant appearances before congressional committeees and on television talk shows, despite the opposition of the Justice Department and the FBI. Both organizations felt a new comprehensive law would burden their organizations with too much paper work.

Travanti's controlled handling of the role, his reflection of Walsh's determination not to show emotion make his major scenes some of the most effective moments in this tightly told tale. His mute, frustrated, strangulated performance interspersed with his eruptions constitute an Emmy-winning performance for this fine actor who, until now, has depended almost solely on his ''Hill Street Blues'' role to demonstrate his talent. It is evident that Trevanti's success is not due merely to the skillfully written format of ''Hill Street Blues'' although ''Adam'' also boasts a skillfully composed script by writer Allen Leicht and tightly orchestrated direction by Michael Tuchner.

At the conclusion of the drama, the voice of John Walsh himself introduces a two-minute ordeal of pictures of children still missing today. It is a poignant gallery, just as ''Adam'' is an indelible film about loss, fury, and frustration. But in its unique way, it is also a serene film about redirecting that pain and fury into positive and constructive channels. The film ''Adam,'' no less than the new missing-children bill, is indeed a fitting tribute to the lost Adam Walsh as well as his strong and fearless parents.

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