ALEXANDRIA, VA – The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) rejoices in the safe recovery of Amanda, Gina and Michele after their decade-long ordeal. Ernie Allen, President & CEO of ICMEC says, “their return to their families sends a powerful message of hope to searching families everywhere and illustrates several important lessons for law enforcement and the general public worldwide:
Time is the Enemy – Today, law enforcement worldwide understands the importance of rapid response to child abduction cases. The old waiting periods in missing child cases are gone. With the advent of the AMBER Alert in the United States, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Romania, Greece and many other countries, law enforcement is mobilizing the eyes and ears of the public in the early, vital minutes following a child’s disappearance. And according to U.S. Department of Justice research, 90% of child abduction cases are resolved within the first 24 hours.
But in some ways, we have done too good a job. The public and law enforcement understand that time is the enemy in these cases. Yet, the emphasis on rapid response has produced an unintended consequence. People, and often law enforcement, tend to believe that if you DO NOT find an abduction victim quickly, there is little hope. The media spotlight dims. The police run out of leads to investigate. The cases grow cold. The world forgets. After a while, the media and the public conclude that the child must be dead. And thus, effectively the search ends.
No Case Should Ever Be Closed Until the Child is Found or We Know With Certainty What Happened – The last US Department of Justice national incidence study found that even among the most serious, most long-term, most dangerous child kidnapping cases, ONLY 40% of the victims are killed. That is a terrible number, and we hesitate to use the word “only.” However, even in the most serious stranger abduction cases, nearly 60% of the victims survive.
The likelihood of a child surviving an abduction is directly related to who the abductor is and what his motive is. Most of those who abduct children are not child killers. They take children for other reasons. Those reasons are certainly not positive. The most common motivation is sexual. With very young victims, abductors often take the child to keep or sell. Some kidnappers kill their victims to eliminate a witness. But most abductors do not kill their victims. Thus, most of the victims can and must be recovered.
The Power of Hope – We have to keep hope alive. A child taken when he or she is very young may not even know they are missing; i.e. Carlina White, the New York child abducted from a Harlem Hospital who found herself 23 years later. The list of long-term recovered children is not long, but in the United States, it is powerful: Elizabeth Smart of Utah, recovered after nine months; Shawn Hornbeck of Missouri recovered after four years; Steven Stayner of California, recovered after seven years; Jaycee Dugard of California, recovered after 18 years; Carlina White of New York, identified after 23 years; and others. More abducted children are still out there.
Abductors Are Hiding in Plain Sight – The most shocking aspect of the Cleveland case is that like Jaycee Dugard’s story, the abductor lived in the community with his victims. As in Jaycee’s case neighbors were suspicious and even alerted police, who found nothing wrong. This went on for a decade, in Jaycee’s case, for 18 years. This emphasizes the importance of public vigilance and law enforcement’s need to take these reports seriously.
Why Don’t Child Victims Try to Escape? – The answer is simple: There is only so much trauma that the human brain can tolerate. These kids figure out how to survive. They are threatened, terrorized, brutalized. They are told that if they tell anybody or try to get away, they will be killed and their families will be killed. That is why what Amanda Berry did yesterday is so remarkable, after ten years. She seized an opportunity and escaped, and in so doing, she saved the other two victims and young children.
In similar circumstances most adults don’t try to escape either. In the bank robbery that led to the creation of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, adult hostages identified with and supported their captors after just a few days. Heiress kidnapping victim Patty Hearst didn’t try to escape. We should not expect terrorized, terrified children to do more.
The Message Going Forward – The Cleveland story sends a strong message of hope to thousands of searching parents. And it enables us to say to police with real conviction that the search must go on. Don’t close these files. Don’t assume that the victim is dead. Continue to circulate the photo and look for new leads. Continue to investigate. Yes, in some of them we are going to learn that the victim is dead, but we are seeing more and more scenarios in which the victims are still alive.
The Heroes: Amanda, Gina and Michele’s remarkable story emphasizes how important the public is in these situations. Charles Ramsey, the neighbor across the street in Cleveland, could have done what so many people do, turn away, afraid to get involved. He didn’t do that and he saved lives. He is a hero. In so many of these cases, average people doing average things but simply paying attention save children’s lives. It is inspiring.
Amanda Berry is also a hero. It was her courage and her seizing the moment that saved her life and those of Gina and Michele. These courageous victims survived, they persevered, and in so doing have become symbols for the nation and the world. In the days ahead they will need help, patience and support, but we are confident that they will display the resiliency of the human spirit. We can’t give them back the decade they lost, but we must help them live their new lives one day at a time. There is real hope for the future. They are alive.”