Nearly a year after the horror of the Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide murder, 210 of the 276 children who died there are still unidentified. Some of the children were wards of the state of California. No one has yet explained why government officials overlooked the fact that the state wards wound up living in the jungles of Guyana while feferal payments earmarked for their care fattened the coffers of Jim Jones' cult.
"The FBI told me they didn't have the time or money to identify all the victims, and it wasn't a priority," says author Kenneth Wooden. "And that's in keeping with the way kids are treated around the country. Those with the lack of power are at the bottom of the list."
Wooden, a 44-year-old writer who lives in Bucks County, Pa., knows about forgotten children. His 1976 book, Weeping in the Playtime of Others, was a highly acclaimed account of institutionalized violence against youngsters in reform schools and detention centers. In recent years he has worked with CBS' "60 Minutes" on reports of child pornography, child neglect and interstate commerce of children.
Last spring a tip led him to investigate the role children played in Jones' hellish empire. The Chicago Sun-Times published his findings in a seven-part series that detailed in wrenching fashion the financial boon children represented of Jones; the use of children as prostitutes to curry favor with at least one politician; and the value of children in keeping parents under Jones' rule.
Now, after months of Washington lobbying to speed up the identification of the young victims of Jonestown, Wooden is planning a midnight candlelight service outside the J. Edgar Hoover Building next weekend, the first anniversay of the Jones deaths. Celebrities such as Ed Asner, Otto Preminger and Julian Bond have lent their names to the memorial service.
"It's crucial for the identification process to be carried out," argues Wooden, "because there are some people in California who share some heavy responsibility for not monitoring those kids -- to say nothing of the fact that parents would like the bodies of their children, and grandparents the bodies of their grandchildren, back for a decent, human burial." Most were buried by bulldozer in a mass grave in Guyana.
Before burial, however, government officials did fingerprint, X-ray and photograph the bodies, and Wooden is working through California courts to become legal guardian of the unknown victims in order to gain access to those documents.
Wooden's efforts are a labor of love borne out of his childhood in Burlington, N.J. He was a punk and arsonist who graduated from high school unable to read. Drafted to fight in Korea, Wooden was introduced to classical music and books by fellow soldiers with college educations. He married the woman who tutored him through Glassboro State College. After four years of teaching high school history and a few years of political organizing, he was appointed by former New Jersey governor William Cahill to help study the state's penal system.
"I came full circle," he remembers. "I saw kids locked up and it reminded me of Ken Wooden, a real high school vandal. There but for the grace of God . . ."
And then the rebel knew he had a cause.