Jaycee Return Gives Others Hope

Monday, Aug 31, 2009  |  Updated 9:04 AM PDT
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A Glimpse Into the Jaycee Lee Dugard Mystery

AP

This family photo released by Carl Probyn on Thursday, Aug. 27, shows his stepdaughter, Jaycee Lee Dugard who went missing in 1991.

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Patty Wetterling keeps a scrapbook of news clippings about abducted children being reunited with their families years later. It's a source of hope for Wetterling, whose son, Jacob, was abducted nearly 20 years ago in central Minnesota.
     
Soon, Wetterling will add another child's story to her book: Jaycee Lee Dugard's.

"My heart's smiling," Wetterling said of reports that Dugard had been reunited with her family in California 18 years after she was abducted at age 11. "It doesn't happen often enough, but we always have hope in our hearts that it will."

Dugard's case, and others like it, show families whose children have been missing for years that such reunions are possible.

More than 58,000 children are taken in non-family abductions every year in the U.S., according to Justice Department estimates. Most of those cases are resolved within the first 24 hours, while an estimated 115 children are victims of real kidnapping -- where the child is held, taken a long distance, killed or kept.

Wetterling and some other parents of missing children believe their loved ones still could be out there, just like Dugard. They also know it's unlikely abducted children will seek help, becoming dependent on their captors.

"These kids don't just come forward on their own, they're most often discovered," said Wetterling, of St. Joseph, Minn., who has become a nationally known advocate for missing and exploited children. "They build a life. They're told lies. They do what they need to survive. We need to do what we can to find them."

In Alma, Ark., where 6-year-old Morgan Nick went missing in 1995, her mother Colleen has led efforts to keep the case going. She meets with the town's police chief regularly to talk about the case and any new leads, which she says come in weekly. Like Wetterling, Nick started a foundation named after her daughter to support other families and assist in prevention efforts.

When she first heard the news about Dugard, Nick's office phone started ringing. Then her cell phone. All the other parents she had worked with through the years shared in the joy -- Dugard had reaffirmed that working to find their missing children was worth it, she said.

"Early on, people said, `It's been too long, maybe you should face reality.' But my reality is my little girl is missing. Giving up is not an option," Nick said. "Part of your heart is walking around somewhere without you."

Dugard's reunion with her family is now one of the cases Hilary Sessions will cite as she explains to people why she's still looking for her daughter, Tiffany, who vanished on her college campus in 1989. The Elizabeth Smart case in Utah and the Shawn Hornbeck case in Missouri also gave her reason to keep looking while some people were telling her to move on.

"They think I'm crazy for keeping up the hope," said Sessions, of Valrico, Fla.

It's been 20 years since Sessions last saw Tiffany, but she said she heard of a case in Canada where a woman was held in captivity even longer than Dugard before being reunited with her mother. "The mother stayed in the same house, hoping that her daughter would come home," she said. "I'm still in my same house."

While Dugard turned out to be alive, hearing details about her captivity was painful for some families with missing children.

Victor Shoemaker, of Leesburg, Va., said while Dugard's story gives his family hope that they'll find his son, JR, it doesn't make his own case any easier to deal with.

"It's what that girl went through that gives you bad thoughts," said Shoemaker, who last saw his son 15 years ago when JR was 5 years old. "It's a terrible thing that someone would do something like that. For what reason?"

Lois Warner, whose 5-year-old granddaughter, Leanna Warner, disappeared six years ago in Chisholm, Minn., said she tries to avoid reading articles or watching TV reports about cases like Dugard's. It brings back the pain, she said.

"To actually see it 18 years later, to know that's actually what happened to your loved one, is absolutely devastating," Warner said.

While some in her family might hope for a reunion like Dugard's, Warner doubts she would be able to handle it. "I don't want to know. She's with the Lord, in my opinion, whether or not she's alive," she said.

At the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, President Ernie Allen said Dugard's reappearance was celebrated as the kind of story advocates work to make happen, whether by asking the public to report suspicious activity or by pushing police to keep working cases.

"It's really important that these cases not be closed until we know with certainty what happened to them," Allen said.

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