Gay Smither

(WOMENSENEWS)–Each phone message grew more frantic. When Erin Runnion arrived at her office on a July morning in 2002, the California accountant heard a flurry of voicemails from her mother, who was looking after her children that day.

Samantha, Runnion’s 5-year-old daughter, was playing in the family’s front yard with her best friend when a man approached, said he was looking for a puppy, grabbed Samantha and fled.Neighbors couldn’t find the little girl. Neither could the police.

Runnion dashed home to fight her mounting terror and wait by the phone. The painful news wasn’t long in coming: within 24 hours, Samantha was found, her lifeless body tossed into a ditch.

The murder made national headlines and plunged Runnion into a six-month depression. When she began to recover, it was to fight back by founding Samantha’s PRIDE, a child-watch program in which adult volunteers escort children to school and extracurricular activities. Started in Runnion’s home town of Stanton, Samantha’s PRIDE has spread to 50 other cities and now enlists 600 volunteers.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va., 797,500 children are reported missing each year–half of them boys and half of them girls.

Though 46 percent of missing children are recovered without incident, 45 percent are runaways, 7 percent are abducted by family members, and up to 2 percent are kidnapped by strangers or acquaintances. Nearly half of the children in the roughly 16,000 cases of non-family abductions are sexually molested by predators. A small percentage–roughly 100 children per year–are murdered by their abductors.

Thanks to grassroots activists like Erin Runnion, the number of children abducted in the United States is on a steady decline. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Bureau of Investigation, the number of stranger abductions averaged 300 per year in the 1980s but has since plummeted to 100 to 150 per year.

“Most of the leading activists in this field are mothers whose children have been reported missing,” says Barbara Smith, head of the Bronxville, N.Y.-based Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organizations, Inc. “Though their children may never be recovered, these women continue fighting against all odds and against all hope. They cope with their loss by making sure this never happens to other families like theirs.”

Mothers Turn Pain into Political Action

In April 2003, Congress passed legislation to help states implement the AMBER Plan (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response), a national alert system that airs descriptions of missing children on television and radio networks. As a result of this program, more than 100 abducted children have been safely recovered. But experts estimate that even more missing children have been found thanks to the various educational and preventative efforts of activist mothers who are working to address this crisis. Like the photographs of missing children that have appeared on milk cartons since 1985 (and that were placed there by the National Safety Council, a non-profit advocacy group based in Itasca, Illinois), the work of these women is both innovative and far-reaching.

Some activist mothers, like Magdalen Bish of Warren, Mass., are working to educate children about predators. In June 2000, Bish’s 16-year-old daughter Molly was kidnapped from the pool where she worked as a lifeguard. In June 2003, her remains were finally recovered. To protect other children, Magdalen Bish launched the Molly Bish Foundation, which has distributed identification kits and conducted safety presentations at hundreds of schools across New England.

Some mothers, such as Gay Smither of Friendswood, Texas, are working to improve search efforts. After Smither’s 12-year-old daughter Laura was abducted and murdered in 1997, she discovered that it’s rare for volunteers to search for missing children, as 6,000 community members did in her case. Typically, only a handful of police officers comb the local area for clues. Smither responded to this gap in services by founding the Laura Recovery Center, a non-profit that mobilizes volunteers to search for missing children and that has helped with more than 1,000 cross across the U.S.

Other activists are pushing for stronger law enforcement. Take Vicki Kelly of Phoenix, Ore., and Claudine Ryce of Vero Beach, Fla.

After Kelly’s 17-year-old son Tommy was kidnapped in 1999 and killed by an overdose, Kelly successfully lobbied for stricter sentencing for adults convicted of giving drugs to minors. After Ryce’s 9-year-old son was abducted and murdered in 1995, Ryce founded the Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction, which provides bloodhounds to police looking for missing children.

If a missing boy or girl isn’t recovered immediately, child welfare advocates need to broadcast news of his or her disappearance as far and wide as possible. Such is the aim of Kelly Jolkowski of Lincoln, Neb. Through Project Jason, a nonprofit named after her 19-year-old son, who was abducted in 2001, Jolkowski gives posters of missing children to truck drivers who post them at rest stops across the United States.

Until a child is recovered, family members must fight to cope with overwhelming stress and anxiety. Helping them is the focus of Team H.O.P.E., a support network based in Philadelphia. Co-founded by Colleen Nick (whose 6-year-old daughter Morgan was abducted from Alma, Ark., in 1995) and Patty Wetterling (whose 11-year-old son Jacob was abducted from St. Joseph, Minn., in 1990), Team H.O.P.E. enlists volunteers–mostly mothers of missing children–to comfort other parents in crisis.

“When your child is missing, people often don’t know how to help you or how to react to you,” says Abby Potash, Team H.O.P.E.’s program manager. “People may tell you to get on with your life. But how can you? Our volunteers spend hours counseling other parents and assuring them that it’s OK to experience the grief and rage they feel.”

Mothers Take the Lead in Anti-Abduction Efforts

Since federal law enforcement officers started tracking missing children in 1982, several victims’ fathers have become prominent in this national crusade. There is John Walsh, whose 6-year-old son Adam was murdered in Hollywood, Fla., in 1981 and who serves as the host of the television show “America’s Most Wanted.” There is Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was murdered in Petaluma, California, in 1993 and who went on to found two advocacy organizations based in Saulsalito, California: The KlaasKids Foundation For Children, which provides identification kits to families and anti-crime presentations to communities, and, which makes posters of missing children for national distribution.

Though fathers like Walsh and Klaas are making crucial strides in this field, the vast majority of advocacy work is being done by mothers.

“Women are socialized to be caregivers,” says Gay Smither of the Laura Recovery Center. “It’s second nature for us to reach out and offer comfort to someone who shares our pain. Women typically process grief by talking through their problems. Men typically process grief by trying to fix things. But when it comes to child abduction, there is no guarantee that things will be fixed or that justice will ever be served.”

Regardless of how they choose to campaign against child abduction, mothers of missing children share the same suffering–and the same determination.

“Nothing will ever take away the pain of losing our children,” says Erin Runnion of Samantha’s PRIDE. “But working to save other missing children helps us give purpose to what would otherwise be senseless and cruel tragedies.”

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: