The nightmare of having your child with you one minute and gone the next is one most parents dread. The U.S. Department of Justice reported nearly 800,000 children younger than 18 were reported missing in a one-year period, averaging 2,185 children reported missing each day.
The Missing Children’s Foundation, with an office in Cleveland, is providing a safe and supportive environment for families who are coping with the disappearance or loss of a loved one. The nonprofit, nondenominational organization emphasized that the first 24 hours after a child goes missing should be viewed as “the only 24 hours,” especially when the child is gone without a trace.
After the body of missing 10-year-old Colorado girl Jessica Ridgeway was recently identified, Brenda Lawson, vice president and regional director of the Missing Children’s Foundation, admits she lost sleep over reports the child was murdered and dismembered by a predator still on the loose.
“This has really bothered me,” she said. “As long as Jessica’s killer is at large, no child is safe. We want to see tougher laws on predators and raise awareness about reporting missing children. Parents wait an average of two hours before reporting that a child is gone. This go-slow approach, while understandable, can cost plenty and in the most serious cases, time is the enemy. We tell parents, don’t wait 24 hours. Tell the police you want to fill out a police report as soon as you know for sure your child is missing.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “every year, more than 200,000 children are abducted by family members. An additional 58,000 are taken by nonrelatives with primarily sexual motives. However, only 115 reported abductions represent cases in which strangers abduct and kill children, hold them for ransom or take them with the intention to keep.”
Brenda and her husband, James, president of the Foundation, said the numbers are still too high and more needs to be done to protect children.
“We have neighborhood watches for our homes and we should have neighborhood watches for our children,” Brenda insist. “When someone can take a child, murder her and dismembered her body — that alone is reason to be out there every day working with parents, children and law enforcement on changing laws, [so] that these sexual predators, when caught, should never go free because they will do it again. That’s one of the things I want to work on when we get fully settled in Cleveland.”
The Etowah couple can be seen at various locations throughout Bradley County raising awareness about child safety and offering free Child Safe Kits to the public. The kit allows parents to register their children with their most recent photo, a fingerprinting strip, DNA samples and other identification material.
“Last weekend we handed out 200 kits at the Keith Street Walmart, and provided child safe awareness information to the parents,” Brenda said. “Last month we gave away 500 kits. We will be at the Save-A-Lot in Tellico Plains this weekend. On Nov. 9-10 and Dec. 21-22 we will be at the Madisonville Walmart. Bi-Lo and Walmart are two of our sponsors in Cleveland, Athens, Etowah and in Madisonville.”
Founded in January 2007, the agency has distributed nearly 40,000 free child safe kits in the area while promoting child safe awareness and helping in search and rescue missions.
“We thought there are too many children coming up missing and we wanted to do something to help,” James said. “Children are our future and we need to protect them. Society as a whole should provide a safety net for all children.”
“We’ve given out more kits this past year than we ever have,” Brenda said. “We’ve gone everywhere we can find people. We want the public to know if their child gets lost or abducted they have someone to call 24/7. They can call our toll-free number and get a child safety kit free by phone.”
The Lawsons said some news reports claim 1.8 million children disappear every year and 50,000 were snatched by strangers. Such statistics calls for earlier detection of missing children and the need to raise greater awareness of the constant danger to families.
“The one thing we all have in common is the belief that ‘It will never happen to my family,’ ” Brenda said. “We want to work harder on changing laws and getting more people involved. Volunteers can contribute by joining our team of facilitators, providing office support, helping with fundraising and communications, or joining our board of directors, or advisory committees.”
While abductions by strangers generate the most headlines, fear and attention, these kidnappings are the fourth largest category of missing children. Runaways are first, followed by family abductions, then children lost or otherwise missing, and finally nonfamily abductions. In those cases around 21 percent are found murdered.
In the cases of the 115 children who were victims of a “stereotypical” kidnapping, the U.S. Department of Justice reports, “These crimes involve someone the child does not know or a slight acquaintance who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.”
According to an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, although abductors can vary in age, race, or physicality, the FBI assesses with high confidence that the majority of child abductors involved in FBI child abduction cases and AMBER Alerts “have a relationship with the child victim.”
The Lawsons said they feel the Missing Children’s Foundation is their calling and are making plans to increase their efforts to raise awareness of a problem that unites people in a single desire — to find, rescue or prevent any more missing children. Recommendations for keeping children safe in the community include parents knowing where their children are at all times, having check-in times and a phone number where they will be or can be reached.
Practicing with children what their home and cellphone numbers are, as well as their address in case of emergencies, is highly recommended. Also, getting to know their friends, meeting their parents and setting limits on how far away they can go when outside the household may alleviate worries.
For further information on the Missing Children Foundation, visit www.missingchildrenfoundation.com or call 1-800-397-1787.