In the early evening hours of Friday, May 16, Jack Ferguson, 34, reported to police that his pigtailed daughter Jacqueline Regina Lomax, 9, had not returned home from playing in their Northeast Washington neighborhood. In the 38 days that have passed, police have combed a wide area, interviewed neighbors and surveyed rooftops from helicopters, but Jackie's whereabouts still remain a mystery.

"It's a real tragedy," said Sgt. Abraham Parks, member of the eight-person District unit that is investigating the case. "We've had no new leads for the past couple of weeks, so we're working around the clock double-checking old leads."

Jackie's case has stumped police from the start. When they interviewed neighbors, some said Jackie was seen getting into a white automobile with an unidentified woman, but police found no traces of the woman or the car. Jackie has been reared for the past seven years by her father. Her mother, Geraldine B. Lomax, has not been seen in more than six years. D.C. police investigating Jackie's disappearance said they are looking for Geraldine Lomax so that they can question her.

About 2,000 District juveniles are reported missing to police every year, and Jackie Lomax, it's sad to say, is one of them this year. While most of these youths are teen-agers who run away for just a few hours, about 200 of them are considered "critical" cases by police because the child is under the age of 8. In many cases, abduction or other foul play is suspected. Even the most serious cases are normally resolved within 24 hours, police say.

"Up until Jackie Lomax we haven't had that many children under the age of 8 or 9" missing, said Parks. "Lomax has been dubbed 'critical' because of the possibility of abduction."

Like Jackie Lomax, Michele Lee Dorr, 6, is a missing child. After Dorr disappeared on May 31, the case took a number of bizarre twists, including her mother consulting a psychic and her father undergoing a psychiatric examination.

Because the two girls disappeared within two weeks of each other, many people have wondered why the Montgomery County youngster's disappearance has received so much more media attention than the disappearance of the District girl. Newspapers and television stations have run numerous stories on the Dorr child, but media accounts of Lomax have appeared sporadically.

"We get calls on the hour wanting to know why this little white girl is getting all the attention and this little black child is getting so much less attention," said Sgt. Parks. "We tell them we sent out the press releases to the media on Jackie but we don't control the stories they run."

A pediatric nurse who is white and who asked not to be identified, said she heard just a little about Jackie's disappearance and that she fears the lack of publicity could impede the search for her. "I heard about it once, but I have no idea of her name. I don't know how she looks, I couldn't spot her if I saw her," she said. "Kids are kids, and they are all equally valuable."

Jackie Lomax's father said he is more concerned with results than with comparisons. "I'm hoping and praying that they both will be found. The fact is two kids are missing. I have met Mrs. Dorr, and she's going through the same thing that I am going through."

Ferguson complained that the police did not react quickly enough when he reported Jackie missing. He said he called the 911 emergency number and was told that a 24-hour wait was required before a missing-person case could be investigated. After looking for the child unsuccessfully on his own, he called police a second time and they came within an hour. According to police, the information Ferguson said he received was incorrect; a missing-person report can be filed right away.

Whatever the outcome of these cases, we must all -- not only as parents but also as citizens -- be more vigilant as we watch our own children and each other's. For what these missing children remind us is that children are our most precious gift -- and responsibility