You're in the supermarket, reading cereal-box labels. Your 4-year-old is at your side. Or rather, he was there a minute ago.
You zip through the aisles, looking. There's not a trace.
What goes through your mind is unbelievable, unacceptable, impossible to contemplate -- and yet it is your very real fear. Did someone carry him away?
This scene plays out millions of times every day as children act exactly like children and fail to appear where expected.
In earlier eras, foul play was often the last thing parents thought of at a time like this. Today, it's frequently the first.
And why not? Posters of missing children adorn shop windows and supermarket bulletin boards, and photos are shown on public-service TV spots and local newscasts. High-profile abductions are turned into heart-wrenching TV films. Each week, 57 million families around the country receive postcard-sized ads for local businesses in their mailboxes with the face of a missing child on the front of each ad.
All this publicity understandably pushes parents to greater awareness and caution as a new generation of business ventures moves to cash in on their protective urge.
At first, the entrepreneurs dealt mainly in identification cards, which can be of enormous help when parents are upset and police need vital statistics on the missing child, along with a clear, full-face, current photograph -- fast.
Starla DuBois of Ventura, Calif., began Secure Child in 1990. The firm offers laminated cards ($10) containing a thumbprint, photo and the child's vital statistics -- plus advice on how to prevent abduction.
In Austin, Texas, Saf-T-Child offers ID cards for $6, or a $25 package that includes two cards, a cassette on safety and a parents' workshop.
Woodland Hills, Calif., photographer Bunny Samuels came up with Safe-4-Kids, a wallet-size photo ID card ($5) containing vital statistics, to be carried by the parents.
Ident-A-Kid, in Florida, offers a similar ID card for $5 through a national network of representatives who travel to schools each year. They sell more than 3 million cards annually.
The market seems to be growing as worrisome statistics on missing children become public. In a 1994 poll conducted by Audits and Surveys Worldwide, 75 percent of parents said child abduction is of "great and serious concern."
Ernie Allen, director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children -- a nonprofit information clearinghouse that works with the U.S. Department of Justice -- says 954,896 missing-person reports were entered on the FBI's national crime computer in 1994. Some 800,000 of those were children.
In some entrepreneurial minds, the time is ripe for "the next step" in child-safety precautions.
Recently, in major newspapers across the country, $18 million worth of full-page ads introduced a service called the Family Protection Network. For $250 a year, the ads say, your child will be registered in a national computer data bank and you are guaranteed high-level search-and-recover methods should your offspring be lost or abducted, or become a run away.
The ads imply that in unusual cases such as child abduction, the usual law enforcement measures may not be fast or good enough. What's more, they imply, many parents are not able to give police up-to-date information about their children. They may not even have the most helpful kind of photo to assist in the search. FPN ads promise to solve all that.
FPN, based in Jacksonville, Fla., promises to keep your child's current photos, fingerprints, hair and blood information, and dental records in secure computer files -- ready to distribute around the country "at a moment's notice."
The company's literature further vows that it will have 1,000 detectives ready to work on your case nationwide, plus search dogs, polygraphs, low-light photography, crisis intervention for the anxious parents, media advisers to tell you what to say on radio and TV, forensic artists -- "even helicopters with thermographic capabilities."
FPN is one of several business units of SafeCard Services Inc., a credit-card registry firm that also manages or owns, among other things, a Professional Golf Association tour business, a mail-order company that sells artworks inspired by the Vatican and an information-processing firm for commercial car, van and truck fleets.
"When I took over here at SafeCard last year, I saw we have this capability of handling confidential information on a secure database, and notifying people when there's a loss," says Paul C. Kahn, the chairman and CEO. "Basically, I said if we can register and protect people's credit cards, why can't we do it for their children?"
Mr. Kahn says that through market research, he found parents are worried about the amount of help available from police and the FBI if their child disappears. These agencies may be superb in their efforts, he says, but everyone knows public resources are limited and dwindling.
"We expect to enroll hundreds of thousands of families at annual fees of either $50 or $250 each." For the lower fee, all physical information on the child is registered in the data bank. If that child disappears the information is immediately transmitted to law enforcement and the media. For $250 annually, FPN's investigative capabilities will be put into play if a child disappears.
"We can afford to do all this because it's a case of signing up many people for a situation that will only hit a few," Mr. Kahn says. "And in those few cases, we are structured to have detectives at your house within an hour and we can go right into action using high-tech resources to find that child."
Not everyone agrees it's a great idea.
"We do not comment on specific products or services, but we have traditionally been opposed to a central registry of children," says Mr. Allen, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Arlington, Va.
"Our view is that parents ought to be proactive. They ought to find out what information they need on their child, they ought to get it and keep it updated in a safe place to use in case their child is missing."
Mr. Allen asks: How much need is there for such a registry in the first place?
"In 1994, 99 percent of all missing-children cases in the FBI files were solved by police," he says.
He urges parents to "call police the minute a child is missing, or thought to be abducted." And don't let the police tell you there's a waiting period before they will take a report, he says.
A 1990 federal law eliminated waiting periods in cases of missing children. Police must respond immediately and take a report.