A routine traffic stop in North Carolina in early February ended a six-year hunt for two missing girls and put the spotlight on a traumatic ordeal affecting thousands of American families every year.
When a child is abducted by a stranger, it makes for sensational headlines. When a child is taken by a parent, few take notice. Yet the emotional toll on children kidnapped in family abductions is no less severe, according to child advocates.
“You lose everything you’ve ever loved and known,” said Liss Hart-Haviv, founder and executive director of Take Root, an organization formed by victims of family abduction. “Your life is gone and your memories become taboo. You become someone else overnight.”
Of the nearly 250,000 kidnappings reported each year in the United States, more than three-quarters are perpetrated by someone the child knows, usually a parent, according to the Department of Justice. Most children are found within a few weeks, but more than 20 percent are missing for months, or as in the North Carolina case, years.
In that abduction, the FBI says a Lillington, N.C., woman picked up her three children from their father’s house near the Virginia border in December 1999 and never returned them.
Police found one of the children, a teenage boy, abandoned in a hotel room. They caught up with Joyce Linda Murray Steyne and her two daughters on Friday. The girls, ages 8 and 6 at the time of their abduction, have been reunited with their father.
Steyne, 45, has been charged with violating a custody order and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Children who have lived for so long on the run face a traumatic adjustment once found, said Hart-Haviv, whose group is developing guidelines for policymakers and agencies involved in child abduction.
“Recovery can become a re-abduction,” she said.
Child advocates say that 90 percent of abducted children receive no mental health counseling, and few law enforcement agencies have special procedures for handling family abduction cases.
“It’s important to have mental health professionals there to help children pack and say goodbye to an abducting parent,” Hart-Haviv said. “Right now these cases are handled like a door-to-door delivery, like stolen property.”
Life on the run
Hart-Haviv, 38, speaks from experience.
Known then as Missy Sokolsky, Hart-Haviv spent the first seven years of her life in a nurturing home in New York City. Her world turned upside-down in the mid-’70s when her parents separated. Amid allegations of harassment, Hart-Haviv was taken by her mother to Florida, seized by her father, then abducted again by her mother.
After the final flight, a secretive dash to San Diego in 1979, the mother and daughter assumed new identities. Missy Sokolsky became Melissa Hart. She lived with her mother in a women’s shelter and later shared a rented room in a stranger’s house. The two survived on donated food and second-hand clothing.
“I had certain secrets that I had to keep in order to protect my mom, and other secrets that I chose to keep because I knew my mom and my new peers would never understand,” she writes on the Take Root Web site.
Hart-Haviv ran away when she was 16. She eventually reunited with her father, but never had a chance to fully reconnect before he died.
‘Dead, dangerous or disinterested’
While some parents flee with children to escape abuse, most do not have their child’s best interests in mind, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“There are legitimate circumstances for taking a child, but 80 percent of cases involve children taken out of anger or vengeance against a spouse, not love for a child,” he said.
The trauma of family abduction is often compounded by lies, Hart-Haviv said: “A child might be told the left-behind parent is dead, dangerous or doesn’t love them anymore.”
And the deeper the deceit, the harder it can be for a child to recover when found, she said.
‘The story changed’
For Richard Paris, childhood was a traumatic blur. Born in Buenos Aries and diagnosed with polio when he was 3, Paris spent his early years shuttling back and forth between South America and treatment centers in the U.S. During one trip in 1957, Paris’ mother abruptly canceled a return to Argentina, telling 6-year-old Paris that his father and grandparents had been killed in a car accident.
The story was a lie.
Unbeknownst to Paris or his father, Paris’ mother was having an affair with her husband’s best friend, an Argentine priest. The man persuaded Paris’ father to send him to the U.S. in search of the wife and son. Paris’ father was left penniless when his estranged wife and her lover cleaned out his bank account.
Paris figures he and his mother moved 15 times over the next 11 years. With each new home — Los Angeles, San Antonio, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina and Brooklyn, among them — came a new name and back story.
“Sometime between 7 and 10, the story changed,” Paris said. “It was no longer that my father had been killed, but that they were alive and that he was hunting for her.”
Paris reunited with the man he once thought dead after graduating from high school in 1967. “We have a good relationship, but he had been hurt so deeply,” Paris said.
Paris and his mother rarely talk anymore.
“Mom’s actions caused generations of loss,” said Paris, a hospital administrator in Buffalo, N.Y. “I tried for years to try to get her to understand the depths and magnitude of what she did to me and to others — she never did. She said, ‘I did it for you.’”
‘I’m one of the lucky ones’
That he’s been able to have a successful career, resurrect a relationship with his father and raise a family despite his tumultuous childhood is a source of great pride for Paris.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.
Through encounters with other Take Root members, Paris said he learned that the awkwardness, shame and detachment he felt growing up are common among victims of family abduction.
“We’ve been through this unique, bizarre, isolating experience,” he said. “No one else has walked in our shoes.”