Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007

Making mark on child safety with ‘Tottoos’

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Virginia Lu found a lost child crying at a Redskins football game last season and thought it could easily have been one of her five youngsters who got separated in the crowd.

So, the North Potomac resident invented a temporary tattoo for tots, called Tottoos, which are aimed at helping lost children to reunite with their parents. Tottoos is a copyrighted product that is rubbed on a child’s body, usually an arm or a wrist, and can include a contact number for a parent or school and any medical information.

‘‘I’m so into safety and always knowing where my kids are,” said Sarah Hechler, of North Potomac, who uses the product on her three boys when they go to a birthday party or an amusement park. ‘‘[But] it only takes a split second for kids to squeeze out of your hand and you don’t know where they are. At least you have a feeling, I haven’t totally lost them, there is a number; there is a way for someone to contact me.”

Lu thinks that no matter how careful parents are, children can still wander off or get lost in the throngs of people at an amusement park, sporting event or mall.

‘‘We use ours quite a bit,” said Lu, whose children range in age from 14 months to 10 years old. ‘‘We use them for every school field trip, for every major outing, for birthday parties where we drop them off. A lot of times it’s just I feel so much better; it takes away that, ‘What if?’”

Lu, who runs the company called Tottoos.Org with her husband, Willie Lu, use special Food and Drug Administration-approved ink and medical adhesive for the product so that doesn’t irritate the skin and won’t come off in water.

Customers can have anything they want printed on the Tottoo, but Lu recommends that no one use the child’s name or address for safety reasons.

Lu invested more than $10,000 in starting the company. The money went into experimenting with materials, obtaining a patent and a trademark for the product and printing brochures and fliers.

She began first by selling to friends in her community and then expanded to Internet sales. Lu, a stay-at-home mom, works approximately three hours each day on Tottoos.Org.

Since she began the company six months ago, Lu has filled approximately 1,500 orders, which can be purchased in kits that range in price from $14.95 for 15 Tottoos to $74.95 for 90. And she has sold to 34 states, Canada and France.

‘‘I just love the product,” Hechler said. ‘‘I think every parent, every guardian, every institution should have this on hand, just to have that extra security. It’s just better to have than to have not.”

In any given year, approximately 14,000 children are reported missing in Maryland, according to Carla Proudfoot, director of the Missing Children’s Center for the Maryland State Police.

However, 97 percent of all missing children are runaways, she said.

More than 76 percent of missing children who are murdered are dead within the first three hours — the most critical time to locate a missing child, according to the U. S. Department of Justice.

Any product that could help return a missing child to their caretaker quickly is great thing, according to Lucille Baur, spokeswoman with the Montgomery County Police Department. Police were not aware of the product.

‘‘For the most part, we see more positive than harm under specific circumstances. It certainly could be a quick means to reunite a parent with a lost child,” Baur said about Tottoos. ‘‘[But] first and foremost a tattoo should never serve as a replacement for constant vigilance of children.”

Proudfoot agreed, saying that she wasn’t familiar with Tottoos either, but as long as parents don’t put too much personal information on their child, it shouldn’t cause any harm.

‘‘I think anything a parent can do to assist in the identification of their child is a good thing,” she said.

Besides the original Tottoos, Lu has branched out into glow sticks that contain the same information and children can wear around their neck or can tie to their belt loop.

She also makes Tottoos for adults that contain medical information.

Although Lu hasn’t had an experience where Tottoos have helped locate one of her children, she hears many stories about how Tottoos have helped others, whether directly or by giving piece of mind.

‘‘If it’s such a common-place thing then people can help, not think, there’s a lost kid, I don’t want to deal with that,” Lu said. ‘‘It gives everybody some power in the situation.”