One missing child still too many

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By David Whitlock

I know how easy it is for a child to be abducted. That’s because when I was a child, I invited a stranger into my home.
It was 1963, I was in second grade, and Mom was at a PTA meeting. I had been allowed to come home and stay by myself rather than wait at school until the meeting was over.
That’s when the stranger rang the doorbell.
I shouldn’t have opened the door, but I did anyway. I shouldn’t have answered his question about where my parents were, telling him I was home alone, but I did anyway. And I shouldn’t have invited him in when he flipped a shiny silver dollar in the air, promising me it would be mine if I would let him in and give him something to eat. I shouldn’t have.
But I did anyway.

And in an instant, I, a child, was alone in my house with a complete stranger.
I suppose there are as many ways to abduct a child as there are children to be abducted. In the United States, about 800,000 children are reported at least temporarily missing every year, although only about 115 become victims of what is viewed as stranger abductions.
Being vigilant about the potential for child abductions is now woven into our social fabric: We alert our children to “stranger danger,” we know Amber Alert, we try to teach our children how to respond to a potentially dangerous situation, we have a communal fear of a child being taken. We no longer raise our children in an age of innocence.
Much of our safeguard against child abductions is a result of the ones who didn’t make it back home. Etan Patz never returned after he was allowed for the first time to walk by himself to the school bus in the quiet, supposedly safe SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan 33 years ago. His became one of the first cases to utilize technology and media to try and find a missing child. Not only were flyers distributed on telephone poles throughout New York City, but Etan’s face was on every milk carton in America.
Community awareness and technological advances have been successful. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has noted, “More than 99 percent of children reported missing in America in recent years have come home alive.”
Technology has created other possibilities as well. Steve Carter, a 35-year-old software salesman, found himself on a missing children’s website. Last year, Steve, a resident of Philadelphia, was watching CNN’S coverage of Carlina White, the Atlanta woman who discovered she had been kidnapped from a Harlem hospital in 1987 by a woman posing as a nurse. A website for missing children helped clue Carlina into her missing past.
That story made Steve even more curious about his own biological family, so on a hunch, he clicked on missingkids.com. He found an age-progression image of himself as an infant. With the exception of the haircut, the resemblance was remarkable. His biological mom had apparently given him to a Honolulu orphanage, changing Steve’s name. Now, he has been reunited with his biological father.
Having eaten the roast beef sandwich I had prepared from Sunday’s lunch, the stranger in my house paused as if he were a connoisseur of fine desserts, liking his lips, anticipating an after dinner treat.
I gazed at the floor.
I can still feel his eerie stare like the hot breath on the neck of an animal being pursued by a predator.
Then, as if he sensed my apprehension, he suddenly became a salesman, and pulling out a picture album, he opened it and began showing portraits of children, picture after picture of boys and girls. They looked like pictures of children suitable for a church pictorial directory.
But they weren’t.
“Would you like to go with me and have your picture made?” he asked. Having my picture made didn’t sound the least bit appealing, and besides, I told the stranger, my mom would be home any minute, and he could ask her.
“You don’t have to ask her,” the stranger whispered, and in the next breath, he asked to use the phone.
He made a call to the Weston Hotel, which I later learned carried the seediest of reputations in our town.
I don’t recall the details of his short conversation, but he abruptly hung up the phone with declaration and announced, “Sorry, kid, I’ve got to go.”
And he hustled out the door, without a mention of the silver dollar.
Later that afternoon, Mom was interrogating my older brother Mark about the mysterious disappearance of the roast beef. That’s when I told Mom, matter of factly, what had transpired while she was at PTA.
At once there was a flurry of activity. Dad was suddenly home, the police arrived, I was questioned, and later, late in the night, taken to the police station and asked to pick out the suspect in a line-up.
The stranger wasn’t among them.
Who told him to leave my house? And why didn’t he take me? Did he move on to abduct other children? And who were those children in the photo album?
The possibilities are as frightening as the ones that could have happened to me.
It’s comforting to be a part of the many who were never abducted or among the 99 percent who were, but returned safely home.
It’s the 1 percent that haunts me, for I was most surely almost among them.
Jesus told about leaving the 99 and searching for the lost one: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the 99 others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost?” (Matthew 18:12).
Why does he go? Because the father cares.
And knows: “I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
Even when their names are changed and their background erased, the father knows who the missing children are and to whom they belong.
And even when their life is lost, he has found them.