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February 2013: Child Abduction: The Road to Recovery

Child Abduction: The Road to Recovery from the Parent’s Perspective

Estimates are that nearly 1.3 million children are reported missing every year[1]. That means that approximately 2,700 children a day are abducted by people they know — acquaintances, family members, people they have met on the Internet — and by complete strangers. Fortunately, many of these children return home safely. Unfortunately, some do not return at all. Those children who do return encounter many obstacles to recovery and healing from the resulting trauma of their abduction and its consequences.

This month’s MECP newsletter explores the recovery process through the eyes of two mothers who have experienced child abduction. First, Abby Potash describes her ordeal as a searching parent after her son Sam Fastow was abducted by his father. Then, Carol Ryan reflects on life — and on the invaluable lessons she’s learned — in the aftermath of the sexual exploitation and subsequent abduction of her daughter Lindsey.

The journey to healing and ultimately empowerment is long and hard — but it can be done. By reducing trauma to victim families — by being sensitive to their need to be involved in the investigation, for example — and by providing the very best in treatment and support — to both children and their families — throughout the reunion and recovery process, we can help all survivors of abduction find their own road to recovery.


A Real Life Story of Parental Abduction: My Life as a Searching Parent

Provided by: Abby Potash

On July 21, 1997, my 10-year-old son, Sam, went missing. On that day Sam was taken away from me, his brother, his maternal and paternal extended family, his classmates, his teachers, his neighbors, his community, his cat, and his own identity by one of the people he trusted most in his world – his father. There are no words to describe the fear, panic, and pain I felt the moment I realized Sam was missing. During the search for Sam I faced  indifference from law enforcement and the public. I continually heard, “He’s with his father, he’s fine.” I didn’t understand their reactions. What mentally healthy parent kidnaps his or her child, breaks the law, and goes into hiding? There was no proof Sam was fine, it was merely assumptions. The two detectives assigned to Sam’s case understood the crime, but, at the same time, they had never investigated a missing child case and did not know what to do. Thankfully they contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® for guidance.

Over the next 8 and ½ months I faced tremendous roadblocks, obstacles, and indifference. When I contacted the media I was told if they helped me, they would have to help everyone. Yes, I said, then help everyone! All missing children are in potential danger, and they are vulnerable. I knew I needed their help in disseminating Sam’s picture. Someone knew where Sam and his father were, someone had seen them, but wouldn’t necessarily know Sam was missing unless they saw his picture on a missing poster. I was relentless in getting his picture out there. I had no idea where he was and diligently worked on distributing his picture across the country. With the help of NCMEC, Sam was featured on a “Have You Seen Me?” card, which was mailed to households across the country. Sam was their 99th recovery!! Pictures can work – they are a very important tool in recovering children!!! It only takes a few seconds of your time to look at these photos. By doing so you could save a life and be someone’s hero. The person who recognized the pictures and called the lead into law enforcement will always be our hero. Without the dissemination of the pictures, I don’t know where Sam and I would be today.

Our lives had changed. Sam came back a different child. I was a different mother. We didn’t have much help when Sam was recovered as not many knew how to help us. After Sam’s recovery we went to four different therapists, all of whom were unable to effectively support us. Two of them even made things worse. Today, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Family Advocacy Division has resources and trainings for therapists to help them understand the needs of the searching parents and the recovered children.

The most important part of a missing child case is that time is of the essence and everything needs to be done to bring children home swiftly. The longer a child is missing, the more damage is experienced and the more difficult it is to heal.

Months after Sam was recovered I was invited to be a part of a newly forming program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to provide peer support to families with missing and sexually exploited children. I was honored and overjoyed. I knew firsthand the difficulties and complications searching families faced, and now I was given the opportunity to help others. We have come a long way since that first training in November of 1998. We are a program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and have reached out to help more than 59,000 families. We have eight teams of volunteers and 160 volunteers spread across the country. We have mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, and extended family members who have had or continue to have personal experiences including endangered runaway children; children lured away by those on the Internet; international and domestic family abductions; nonfamily abductions; lost, injured, or otherwise missing children; and sexually exploited children. We do our best to provide families with hope, strength, empowerment, and courage as they struggle through the journey and the healing process after exploitation and recovery. I am the Director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Team HOPE program and am honored to work beside these compassionate and dedicated men and women who generously offer their hearts, experience, wisdom, and strength to others.

I’ve come to believe what is more important than what happens to us in life is what we do about it. Everyone in Team HOPE has done something very difficult, by keeping their spirits strong in the face of one of a parent’s greatest nightmares – having a missing or sexually exploited child. Having strength is not enough, how you use it is more important. Everyone in Team HOPE puts their strength to good use by reaching out to help others. Team HOPE can be a beacon of light guiding those lost in the darkness of despair. Only those who have already been there can possibly know how it feels. We’re sad about the circumstances that brought us together, but grateful we can use our experiences to help others so they don’t feel alone in their pain. We are the HOPE family.

Team HOPE is a volunteer-based program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization. If you have a missing or sexually exploited child and need assistance, if you know a family that might benefit from Team HOPE, or if you would like to use your personal experience to help others please contact us toll free at 1-866-305-4673 or via email at [email protected].


Abduction From a Mother’s View: The Story of Carol Ryan

Provided by: Carol Ryan

On March 1, 2013, it will be 10 years since my daughter Lindsey went missing. Luckily, Lindsey was recovered safely, though the impact of that experience will always remain. In 2003, I was a confident mother, known for my loving home and well-behaved children. Yet in one day, my life turned upside down and I learned a bitter lesson about my own parenting.

Everything started when a sex offender who attended our church became involved with my then 14-year-old child. Secretly, they communicated online about harmless topics like music, boys, school and even church activities. My daughter was lonely, so her new pen pal friend felt like a great addition to her life. Unfortunately, his predatory behavior eventually intensified, and he sexually assaulted Lindsey. Why she never approached me is a question that still haunts me.

Years later, Lindsey revealed that she blamed herself for the abuse, because she was molested only after she snuck out of the house to meet her “friend.” In her young mind, because she met him willingly and didn’t resist his touch, she was to blame for everything. How sad it must have been for her when the abuse escalated to an almost nightly event. Still, Lindsey never said a word. She assumed that she deserved the punishment for being deceptive. Meanwhile, I was oblivious to the damage that was happening to my young daughter. It was only after she vanished that the details became known.

When Lindsey went missing, there were exceptional circumstances that brought special attention to the investigation: her offender had previously served 15 years for a conviction involving the murder of another female he had met at church; firearms were missing from our home as well as a large amount of gold; and statements made to the police revealed that the two were having a sexual relationship. Fortunately, the police considered all the facts surrounding this life-threatening situation and issued an AMBER Alert. And because of exemplary police effort, Lindsey was found three weeks later, 2000 miles from home. Without that alert, Lindsey would probably still be missing.

We were very fortunate to have Lindsey returned home to us. All of the first responders and law enforcement officers involved in her case were very much a part of her return. After the ordeal was over, I decided to use my experience as the parent of a missing child to work with Team Hope to help support other families facing a similar situation. Through it all, I learned a number of lessons about how law enforcement, first responders, child protection personnel, and others who serve missing children and their families can best work with parents who are experiencing the nightmare of having a child go missing.

Never underestimate your influence. Parents and families of missing children are consumed with feelings of fear and hopelessness. They must constantly be sustained and they need to feel protected. One way to do this during the investigation is to share information with the family so parents and others can adjust their expectations about how long the investigation will take and who all is involved. Another way to sustain the family is to engage them in the investigation. For example, assign small tasks that family members can do to help them feel they are contributing. Even a simple job like keeping a notebook tracking all the calls that come in regarding their child can help alleviate stress.

Remember that work with the family continues well after a missing child has been located. Reunion and recovery are two very distinct things. Counseling and long-term support for both the returning child and the family are critical to the child’s successful reintegration into home life and the subsequent recovery process. Both the child and the parents must be reassured that the event is not their fault. Parents need to be educated about the role of grooming and manipulation, enticement and compliant behavior, especially if the victim feels an attachment to his/her perpetrator.

It is normal for parents to experience feelings of anger toward their child. To help parents process their anger, help them to understand the event through the eyes of their child, especially in terms of the child’s emotional development. When I found out my daughter had kept the relationship with her abuser secret, I was deeply hurt by her deception. Immediately the detective reframed Lindsey’s behavior so I could see that Lindsey may have been overwhelmed by and unprepared to cope with an adult with criminal intentions. That perspective reassured me and helped me stay open to my child.

Prepare some handouts to share with parents who are in the recovery process. Enticement and grooming are common tactics of abusers, so thoughtful information about those subjects can be particularly helpful.

Offer the support of the larger community. Another simple but powerful gesture is to approach the family in a friendly way whenever you encounter them at other events. Remember, parents may feel defensive about and embarrassed by the events that are happening to them. In their minds, they have either failed their child or their child has failed them. Neither thought is pleasant. If the facts of the case involve intimate sexual acts, the parents may feel even more uncomfortable around you.

Go up to the parents with a smile and offer a pat on the shoulder. Be relaxed and reassuring. Once or twice after the recovery, call the family just to say hello. You may even invite the family to participate in local awareness events. Even if they decline, the invitation is healing. Have you ever thought to talk with a survivor about another case? Of course you would never share details about another investigation, but when you ask for a family member’s opinion, that person realizes they have something important to offer. This is a great thing to do. Lindsey said being with others at the AMBER Alert family roundtable helped her discover the beneficial lessons she had learned through her recovery.

Do not drop the ball too soon. A smooth transition from the investigators to the next layer of service providers is critical to the family’s recovery. In some regions, trained victim advocates do a terrific job at this. However, in small jurisdictions or in cases that don’t get litigated, such procedures may not be in place. Furthermore, the terminology, procedures and tone, understood by law enforcement, often take on entirely different interpretations by physicians, criminal justice staff, school officials and therapists. Professionals with different training and backgrounds will have different opinions when they read the case file. This is because every profession has its own vocabulary, theory and set of procedures.

When cases require a wide range of expertise, investigators should set up a time with the provider to explain why certain steps were taken and what specific labels mean so that the next caregiver has a clearer understanding about the survivor’s world. This meeting might also include explaining details about the family’s cultural context. Police officers can help bridge the gap by providing background information and cultural context to victim advocates and others involved in the case.

My daughter’s abduction changed everything. I didn’t trust men. I wasn’t confident that I was a good parent. I was paranoid about everyone. I was defensive. I was fearful and uncertain how to walk through the next stage of life. Lindsey experienced many of the same emotions. She also felt damaged, abused, ashamed, confused and withdrawn. She feared our rejection. We feared hers. It was a time of brokenness. Just when absolutely everything seemed to fall apart, I discovered that in the midst of all that destruction was a new beginning.

From that time on, good things happened too. Lindsey and I grew closer. I learned to value the help of other people. I changed my perspective and adjusted my expectations. I learned that love is a mighty force, and that healing takes years. Most of all, I learned that life is precious and we need to live our days purposefully. Today I do that as a member of Team Hope supporting parents of missing and exploited children. I have become a certified national victim advocate, parenting coach and graduate student. Lindsey has become a woman proud of her accomplishments. She successfully completed a six-year enlistment that included a deployment to Afghanistan. She is considering reenlisting.

Finally, I want to conclude with a special word for those in the law enforcement community. I know from firsthand experience that many times police officers in particular get judged unfairly. Police face a no-win situation. Some parents expect that because their world has stopped, the police should be able to drop everything to find one missing person. Plus, because our heartache is so great, we parents sometimes lash out and can be very insensitive to you.

I imagine you receive negative feedback way more often than positive. But please, remember that you play an invaluable role in every missing child case. Especially in critical incidents, you are the life preserver tossed out to a person drowning. Your influence is so potent that it doesn’t stop when the child is located. Your thumbprint stays on the case forever.

Thank you for working so hard for my family. Thank you for not condemning us or our daughter. It was police effort, God’s grace and wonderful advocates who restored my family. Thank you for your dedication and caring.


Upcoming Events

MECP 3rd Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. Webinar Series

MECP will continue its exploration of new topics as part of its 3rd Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. Webinar Series. Future webinars will focus on the survivors of abduction and exploitation and on their road to recovery.

Webinar speakers will explore strategies for reducing the trauma to victims and their families throughout the investigation process, and examine promising practices in providing long-term care and support to everyone affected. Panelists for the series will include survivors of family abduction, victim advocates, law enforcement officers, experts on forensic interviewing and experienced prosecutors. Stay tuned to the MECP website for more information about this series, including webinar dates and registration.

A preview of the series as well as a presentation by Sam Fastow and Abby Potash, entitled A Real Life Story of Parental Abduction: Life as a Missing Child and as a Searching Parent, is now available via the Webinar Page. To submit questions for Sam and Abby or on the series, please click here.

March’s webinar will focus on the healing process following the recovery and reunification of the child with their family. The webinar will be presented by Melissa “Liss” Haviv, former child victim and co-author of the Crime of Family Abduction publication. The common short, intermediate, and long term impacts of abduction as well as strategies for mitigating trauma to the victim will be discussed.

This event will be made available via the Webinar Page on March 20th. In the meantime, we encourage you to submit your questions so that they may be addressed during the event.

National Missing Children’s Day Poster Contest

There is still time to get your fifth grade class involved! Students must submit a poster based on the theme “Bring Our Missing Children Home” to their state contest manager. The winner will travel to Washington, D.C., to receive an award and participate in the Missing Children’s Day Ceremony in May.

For more information about the contest and your state’s submission process, please visit the poster contest resource page or contact MECP at 1-888-347-5610 or [email protected].


MECP’s Training Center

March 18-21, 2013: 29th National Symposium on Child Abuse. The Symposium will offer 10 workshops sessions for multidisciplinary professionals working in the child maltreatment arena. The workshops are designed for both seasoned professionals and those new to the field. Workshop tracks are designed specifically for Administration, Child Protective Services, Interviewing, Law Enforcement, Legal, Medical, Mental Health/Treatment, Prevention, Victim Advocacy, and Wellness. For more information, contact Marilyn Grundy at (256) 327-3863 or by emailing [email protected].

May 8, 2013: National AMBER Alert Symposium. As part of its ongoing effort to enhance the efficacy of the AMBER Alert initiative nationwide, the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program is convening a symposium to explore investigative techniques, hone responders’ skills and create a seamless AMBER Alert network. Join us in Jacksonville, Fla., May 8–10, 2013, to make sure you and your team stays up-to-date on the best, most promising practices in the child abduction and exploitation field. Registration is open online. For more information, contact the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program at (877)-71-AMBER or by emailing [email protected].

Advertise Your Event to MECP Newsletter Readers. To submit a request to have your event advertised through the MECP Training Center, please click here.

We Want to Hear From You. MECP invites you to share your stories about your organization’s contributions to the juvenile justice field. It is our goal to expand awareness about all the issues surrounding missing children and child exploitation as well as increase understanding of the impact of your work — its value for practice, policy, ongoing research, advocacy and more importantly, for youth, their families and their communities. We’d also like to promote networking opportunities so organizations across the country can connect with one another.

Help others by sharing your success story. The best ones will be featured in our monthly newsletter. To submit your story, please visit us online. Thank you for all you do to make a positive difference in our children’s lives.

Request Training and Technical Assistance From MECP. MECP offers training and technical assistance tailored to meet the specific needs of state, local and tribal law enforcement, nonprofit organizations and other juvenile justice practitioners. For more information on how your agency or organization can receive training and technical assistance on missing and exploited children’s issues, please contact MECP at 1-888-347-5610 or [email protected]. To submit a request for training and technical assistance, please complete a training and technical assistance form.



[1] National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview. Bullentin: National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, October 2002, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Washington, D.C.