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    Missing Children center shuts down

    The nonprofit, which had been criticized in recent years, filed for bankruptcy May 2.

    By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 14, 2002



    Ivana DiNova of Tampa founded the precursor to the Missing Children HELP Center in 1976.

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    TAMPA -- For 20 years, the Missing Children HELP Center has received accolades for reuniting children with their families and promoting awareness to help prevent such cases from happening in the first place.

    The nonprofit organization, with roots in Tampa, also had a controversial history of raising millions of dollars that ended up in fundraisers' pockets instead of funding the effort to find children.

    Now, the run is over.

    The organization filed for bankruptcy in Tampa on May 2. The Web site includes an announcement that it shut down as of April 29 and directs users to Web sites of similar children's groups.

    The center's founder, Ivana DiNova of Tampa, did not return phone messages seeking comment. The board of directors and the lawyer handling the bankruptcy could not be reached or did not return calls for comment.

    The reason for filing bankruptcy and shutting down the organization were not clear. In the bankruptcy case, Missing Children listed $108,437 in assets from computer equipment and other office supplies and $288,974 in liabilities. The organization raised more than $7-million in 2000, according to government records.

    Much of the debt was owed to phone companies, printing companies, government agencies for filing fees and other expenses, and newspapers for unpaid advertising bills.

    DiNova began what she called the Dorothy Scofield Awareness program in 1976, named after her husband's cousin who disappeared that year. The shaking and frightened child was seen in a convenience store buying sodas two hours after she went missing. But following procedure at the time, the police classified the 12-year-old Scofield as a runaway and did not begin a search for 24 hours. She was never found.

    In 1982, DiNova started the Missing Children . . . HELP Center, which she ran on a small budget and without a salary for seven years. The organization helped coordinate efforts to find missing children, acting as a liaison with law enforcement and parents. The main objective was to disseminate photographs and information and to take in tips through toll-free numbers and, in recent years, on the Internet.

    The group helped spearhead efforts to pass the 1983 Missing Children's Act, which eliminated waiting periods for searching for missing children. Four years later, the group partnered with the National Child Safety Council and DiNova began taking a salary.

    The group was involved in several local high-profile missing persons cases including Tiffany Sessions of Valrico, who disappeared in 1989 while attending the University of Florida; 5-month-old Sabrina Aisenberg, who vanished from her home in Valrico in 1997; and the disappearance and subsequent murder by Willie Seth Crain of 7-year-old Amanda Brown of Seffner in 1998.

    Missing Children stated in government records that it registered 631 missing children and unidentified people in 2000. Of those, 400 were located and 164 more cases were closed, the organization stated.

    The organization also distributed hundreds of thousands of missing children's photographs through printed fliers, posters and the Web site. Missing Children maintained a toll-free phone line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, answering thousands of calls. The Web site received 2.3-million visitors that year, the records stated.

    Controversy arose in the late 1990s when complaints began piling up about Missing Children's finances and fundraising techniques.

    Federal nonprofit records showed that the group raised $7.15-million in 2000, of which $5.26-million was spent on fundraising.

    More than $856,000 more was spent on management and other general costs. Seven managers were paid between $82,000 and $158,000. As executive director, DiNova made $62,795. At least two other employees were paid more than $50,000, records showed.

    Only $819,060 was spent on program services.

    Last year, the New York Post criticized the group for using missing Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy's case to help raise money, despite spending so much on expenses and salaries.

    In July, Dateline NBC ran a story showing undercover footage of fundraisers making erroneous claims about how many children the organization had helped find. Officials with Missing Children agreed on camera that the fundraisers exaggerated the role the group played in several cases in which children were reunited with their families.

    DiNova told Dateline that she was unaware that the fundraisers were making false claims. She vowed to make sure it wouldn't happen anymore.

    "Absolutely unacceptable," she said at the time. "We were appalled to hear it. It needs to stop. That is not true what (the fundraisers) were saying."

    -- Times files and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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