By Agence France-Presse
Hundreds of thousands of children are listed as missing in the US every year, the vast majority quickly turning up. But for parents whose children remain missing for months — or even years — the wait is almost unspeakably agonizing.
So when an impostor appears, raising false hopes — as happened this week when a young man claimed to be Timmothy Pitzen, who disappeared in 2011 at the age of six — the shock is particularly horrific.
Still, these families are unanimous about one thing: you can never give up hope.
“Unfortunately, this child is not our beloved Timmothy,” his aunt Kara Jacobs said, once the truth became clear. “We know that you are out there somewhere, Tim, and we will never stop looking for you, praying for you and loving you.”
Like Jacobs, Patty Wetterling clung to hope for decades after her son was kidnapped in 1989 at the age of 11.
She said she was encouraged by the examples of Shawn Hornbeck, who was found in 2007 after four years in captivity; of Jaycee Dugard, who turned up in 2009, 18 years after her abduction; and of the three young girls freed in 2013 from kidnapper Ariel Castro after a dozen years in his hands.
“They are living proof even in the worst of situations when all leads are dry and it feels like all hope is lost, we must never, never give up looking for our missing children,” she wrote in the foreword to a 2016 guide for police on how to handle missing child cases.
Thousands of runaways
A few months later, human remains turned up; they were identified as those of Wetterling’s son. Despite that tragic outcome, she continues to preach a message of hope through a charitable association founded in her son’s memory.
“We here at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center believe that maintaining hope and manifesting it is crucial in not only the fight to find missing loved ones but also the ability to recover and work through trauma and grief,” Sadie Simonett, who works for the center, told AFP.
As hard as that can be when bad news arrives, said Simonett, families report that keeping up their hopes helps them remain active and soldier on.
The argument for optimism is not unfounded.
Since 2014, more than 3,000 children have been found after absences of more than 12 months, including 234 who had been missing for more than 10 years, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
The great majority (59 percent) were runaways who returned home — many after experiencing terrible trauma during their time away.
Nearly all the others were abducted by a family member. Less than one percent — 16 in total — had been kidnapped by a stranger.
But when a child disappears, it is not always clear which group he or she falls into.
The Washington Post recently recounted the story of the reunion between Cynthia Haag, a Baltimore resident, and her daughter Chrystal, who disappeared at the age of 14.
After an agonizing 20 years of uncertainty, Haag learned that her daughter had run away to escape the clutches of a neighbor who had been raping her for years.
Convinced that her mother must have been turning a blind eye to the continued abuse, Chrystal decided to run away and reinvent herself, taking on a new name.
Only when her son, 20 years old now, repeatedly asked Chrystal about her family did she finally decide to reconnect with her mother.
Whatever the story, the return of a missing child does not immediately put an end to a family’s torment.
The parents may feel resentment that the child ran away, leading to so much anguish. Meanwhile, the children may feel that not enough was done to find them and there can be festering anger over past sexual abuse.
Physical changes in the children can complicate things too and the NCMEC says reunions can be painful.
But years after her liberation, Elizabeth Smart said she would never forget the moment she again set eyes on her father.
In 2002, at the age of 14, she had been abducted from her bedroom by a man who held her captive and repeatedly raped her for nine months.
“I would never forget thinking that whatever lay in front of me, it was going to be okay.” It was the “best feeling in the world,” she said, “knowing that someone loves you.”