Saturday, October 26, 2013

Christians Confront Crime and Missing Persons

          Missing. Vanished. Disappeared. Lost. Gone. These are scary, ugly words that describe people who, for various reasons, find themselves unfortunate enough to become unaccounted for and are not able to be found without help. It seems that, if we follow the news, especially online, that we see one case after another, of men, women, and children who vanish. Those of us who operate in the "world of the missing," whether as family members, professionals, volunteers or advocates, see literally one person after another, be reported as missing. And this does not take into consideration all of those who are not even reported as missing! People of all ages, and from all walks of life, of all races and ethnicities, go missing. Boys are as likely to vanish as girls; men are as likely to disappear as women. Having a missing loved one can happen to anyone at any time. And as Christians, we are called to be voices for the voiceless. Yet I believe that awareness of this epidemic is pretty absent in the Church as pastors and people rightly stress worship, discipleship and evangelism. I know this by experience, as a parishioner cased in St. Louis, Missouri and seeing apathy and ignorance when I've tried to inform local Christians.
          The epidemic of missing persons is so HUGE that I currently have three Facebook pages, including one just for missing children and one just for missing adults. Every time I log into Facebook and scroll through my Newsfeed or Facebook pages feed, I see one missing person case after another! Along with all those missing children and missing adults that do not get solved, are the many, many new cases that emerge. This does not even count all those missing children or adults who are never reported to authorities as such! And sadly, no doubt many in the Church are personally affected in some way or other by this, by experience or knowing other families or victims.
          I have "friended" many profiles on Facebook, that have been set up for missing people and they make up roughly half of my social network; these profiles are set up by family members and advocates, so missing persons posts show up on my homepage with alarming and heartbreaking frequency. It is the case of Lindsey Baum, who is pretty close in age to my own daughter, who got me fired up about this issue. Lindsey, who vanished on June 26, 2009, was almost 11 at the time and is still missing! Missing people are likely to never go away, nor the need for awareness. And for the sake of those who are not familiar with missing people, let me explain the issues surrounding them and how they apply to all of us and why this concerns us all.
          The first, and most simple reason people go missing is miscommunication about whereabouts. When, in any situation, one of us fails to let others know where we are going and where we can be reached, whether we are going for a few blocks, a few milies, out of our country, or even our state or country, it is possible for others to "lose us." For example, over four years ago, the media covered a heartbreaking story of couple in an affluent neighborhood who "lost" their baby because each parent assumed their child was with the other parent (and so was safe). Tragically, the child had vanished and his poor little body was found. This was all because of a misunderstanding, and don't we all have those? I know I do! But this couple was unfortunate enough to pay for theirs by the loss of a child. And this sort of missing person scenario is probably more common that we will ever know; isn't this one more incentive for communicating, especially concerning whereabouts, ours or others' in our care?
          A second reason people, both children and even adults, go missing is because they run away, that is they vanish by choice. Most missing people, especially minors, we are told, are runaways. Though most are found safe, many other runaways encounter foul play as they go on the run; they may end up raped or even murdered; most who run into foul play become victims of human trafficking, especially in the teen years. Thrownaways, those who are not reported as missing, also are just as much at-risk as runaways, of running into foul play. Human trafficking is a big issue surrounding missing people, as many of them are believed to be in the sex slavery trade (not the only form of human trafficking, which includes adoption trafficking or domestic servitude). Since many of us are parents of children ages 10-25 (considered to be most at-risk of becoming victims of human trafficking), we ought to be very concerned about this matter. This is a depraved, sick industry and it is a powerful incentive to drill into children that running away is NOT the solution to problems at home; it is also a big incentive to create a home balanced with the right mix of love and discipline so they the young will not even want to run away! For runaways cannot be assumed to be safe, though most missing children who are found safe, are runaways. And running away is not confined to children. Adults have also been known to vanish willingly. I understand that an average runaway, within the first 24 hours, is likely to be approached by a pimp. A few years ago, in regards to one adult voluntary disappearance, I read a book called Exit the Rainmaker, written by a woman whose husband ran away, and began a "new life" in Europe, moving from country to country. Tiffany Tehan is a recent case; an active parishioner and a mother, she ran off and was found with a man. We adults also need to lead by example, showing the young that running away from problems is not the way to solve anything. By facing our adult responsibilities, including caring for these children, jobs, homemaking, bills, or whatever we are called to do, we show them that running away is "uncool." And we spare loved ones and our communities unneeded anxiety, anguish as well as expenses of looking for us. We may even be saving our own lives!
          Many children vanish because of family abductions where the non-custodial parent (who does not have child custody) kidnaps them and harbors them unlawfully, often out of vindictiveness toward the other parent and as a way to "get back at" them. This kidnapped child is normally found safe but cannot be assumed to be so, especially when the non-custodial parent is known to be abusive, as in the high-profile, sad case, over a year ago, of little 8-year-old Aja (pronounced Asia) Johnson, who was taken by her stepfather and was found dead  (He had killed his ex-wife, Aja's mother beforehand). Years ago, I saw the tear-jerker, "When Andrew Came Home," about a 6-year-old boy who was kidnapped by his non-custodial father, and was found 5 years later. However, as often happens in the case of parental abductions, his father had turned Andrew against his mother, so he came home with deep fear and hate toward her. Fortunately, that story has a happy ending. Sadly, not only do such children come home, brainwashed, but sometimes the custodial parent never sees them again.  I read that rage-filled parents use parental kidnapping as a weapon to hurt the other parent, and are getting more blatant about actually hurting the children they kidnap. So children who are kidnapped by a family member should not be assumed to be safe! We parents need to realize that, even if our partner hurts us, using a child to "even the score" solves nothing!
          And then people, especially children, teens and young adults, vanish because they are abducted by acquaintances or by strangers. In this case, the missing person is more likely to be found dead and what happens to them normally happens within the first three hours. Abductors may take their victims to hold them captive, whether for a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, for months or even years, and this is when they are likely to be found alive. Long-term kidnapping survivors, like Elizabeth Smart, found alive after 9 months, or Jaycee Dugard, who was found alive after 18 years, are notable exceptions. People who vanish because of abductions are in the minority of the total number of missing people. We have many resources today to protect our children from such abductions, though there are never any 100 percent guarantees. We can be thankful for the AMBER ALERT program, limited as it is, as it covers only children whose abductions are witnessed, who are officially believed by law enforcement to be in bodily danger, and who are 17 or under (in my home state, age 16 is the cut-off age). Most recently, three girls, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, were located in Cleveland, Ohio. They had been held captive in Castro's house for ten years, more (eleven for Michelle). If you follow the news, you probably are aware of the horrible conditions these girls were forced to live under, as their captor "hid in plain sight." He was respected in the community, attended worship services every Sunday and otherwise moved about in the community, and at the same time  brutalized these three girls. He fathered a child with one of them! Many of us may have seen his sentencing, where Michelle Knight gave a powerful victim impact statement. As Chsistians, we need to pray and see what we can do to help stop these crimes.
          Domestic violence is another big reason for missing people. A common scenario, which we hear about too often in the news, is when a parent, partner, or spouse abuses a family member to death and then makes the murder look like something else, like suicide or a mysterious disappearance. The only way we can deal with this one is to manage our anger (often easier said than done) and to find ways to prevent and end all forms of abuse in our communities. So much has been said about child abuse and spousal abuse that I need not go into it here. The sad stories about missing children or adults vanishing, and then being found dead (or not at all) and where spouses or parents are implicated, are far too numerous to list! Domestic violence by wives or girlfriends has become almost as common as that by husbands or boyfriends. On Investigation Discovery (ID), the sheer volume of solved cases covered there show how HUGE domestic violence missing persons/murder cases are! It seems to be getting worse, too! ID series like "Southern-Friend Homicide" and "Deadly Women" and the Oxygen series "Snapped" are just a sample of how epidemic murders are! Countless cases are featured on TV. Will it ever end?
          A final reason that people of all ages vanish is because they have special needs, especially cognitive differences, like amnesia, strokes, dementias, mental illness, autism, suicidal urges,or other such issues, that causes them to "wander off" or to "elope" where they are at-risk of bodily harm or foul play. Disabilities are often a big issue that surround missing people, but I fear that it is seen as a separate issue, for some reason. AMBER ALERT, the national program that has saved so many children's lives, does not cover anyone but minor children who have not only been abducted but whose abductions have been witnessed. The program does not cover children (and certainly not adults) with special needs who wander. There have been many recent cases of autistic children who have wandered off and whose bodies have been tragically found in bodies of water. The only answer I see for this is to seek to protect such people in such a way that takes into consideration their special situations while giving them some measure of independence. Yes, this is easier said than done!
          Christian brothers and sisters, you are being challenged to see what God may want of you concerning this. How will you respond?
         Below I provide links to helpful resources and I hope you will check them out. And if you have a missing loved one, please know that you are not alone and that there are many resources for you and people who care. If you are simply seeking to educate yourself about this, these resources will educate you to toward prevention and reducing your risks of having a loved one vanish. And if you want to help, there are options for that, too. Shouldn't getting informed about this and maybe getting involved be part of ministry?
         We all can help bring missing people home!

I now have three Facebook pages because of the enormity of this epidemic. Please visit each of the links and "like" each page if you are a Facebook user.

Missing Kids

Missing Adults

Awareness For Missing and Unidentified People

National Domestic Violence Hotline, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, translatable in 170 languages
1-800-799-SAFE  (1-800-799-7233),  1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

National Child Abuse Hotline, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, translatable in 170 languages
1-800-4-A-CHILD  (1-800-422-4453)

National Runaway Safeline (formerly Switchboard)
1-800-RUNAWAY  (1-800-786-2929)

National Human Trafficking Hotline

LostNMissing, Inc..
This is the website for a nonprofit which provides comprehensive services for familes with missing loved ones and also educates about prevention of seeing a loved one going missing.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
This is the website for a nonprofit which provides comprehensive services for families with missing children with a database for all children in the US who are reported as missing, and provides lots of information, including how to prevent children from going missing.

National Missing and Unidentified Persons System
This is the US database for ALL missing and unidentified people whose cases have been entered into it. It can be used by law enforcement or by the public; it is considered to be much-underused because people don't know how to use it or don't know about it in the first place.

Let's Bring Them Home
This is the website for a nonprofit which serves families with missing adult loved ones. It provides a comprehensive database for all adults in the US who are reported as missing.

This is a website for a nonprofit which provides comprehensive services to prevent and end child abuse in our communities; this site also includes a hotline to reporte child abuse.

This is a website for a nonprofit which serves families of missing minority children, children when usually are underserved.

There are other resources which I'm sure you can add!

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