Amid fears of abduction, paedophilia and other crimes, American businesses are turning space-age technology into child security devices. Advanced radio-wave technology is being used to enable parents to keep tabs on their children, while teachers and baby-sitters are being offered pager systems to notify relatives in the event of an emergency.
One company at the cutting edge of child security is Allegro, and parent Wendy Rich-Coleman took advantage of its facilities recently.
Wendy wanted to drop her two young children at the Allegro SuperCare Centre in a bustling suburban shopping mall in Rhode Island. She filled in a complex application form, and had her photo and other personal data entered into a computer. She was then given a device to let her see and talk to her children from futuristic video kiosks while she shopped.
An employee punched a code into an electronic keypad and let the youngsters pass through two locked doors into a playroom filled with children wearing wristbands colour-coded to indicate any medical conditions.
"The kids might kill each other in here," Wendy shouted above the noise, "but nobody's going to steal them."
The centre, which opened earlier this year, was set up not by child-care specialists, but by a pair of engineers. The video technology that lets parents see and hear their children is based on microphones and cameras first developed for the Space Shuttle. The cost is about $5 (Pounds 3.26) an hour per child.
"It was obvious from all our market research that the primary concern of parents was about leaving their children somewhere," said Igino Lombardo, one of the company's founders. Two more Allegro centres are under construction, and another five are planned.
There were 800,000 cases of children reported missing in the United States in 1994, the last year for which figures are available.
Dec-Tech International Corp. of Amarillo, Texas, has developed pager-like devices that warn a parent when a child wanders too far. The product, called CHILDWatch, uses technology invented to help police track stolen cars; nearly 50,000 have been sold.
A similar device, now being tested, transmits radio signals back and forth between pager-type devices worn by children and their parents. If the child roams beyond a pre-set distance, an audible alarm and a homing device are triggered.
"If anything, this is a safety net," said Ned Hill, president of Secure Technologies of Boston. "If a parent had a choice to go out into today's busy world with a safety net or without a safety net, why in the world would they not choose to have this? If science can provide it, why not do it?"