“I thought only strangers kidnapped children.” – David, age 8.
When Michelle first called Child Find, she was emotionally exhausted and frustrated over her experience with law enforcement regarding the abduction of her sons, David, 8 and Darnell, 4. The boys had been missing for a month, taken suddenly by their grandparents who had abandoned their house and pets and were now somewhere on the road with the boys in a semi-truck used for the family business. Michelle had been growing more anxious and desperate by the day as she feared her parents’ sudden and erratic actions were putting David and Darnell in harm’s way.
Michelle shared with us a painful history leading up to the abduction. She said that growing up in her parents’ house had always been difficult, and she had witnessed a lot of conflict between them. Sometimes things would turn violent. This had a real impact on Michelle and informed the way she wanted to raise her children. She had David, Darnell, and Trisha early in life and raised them on her own near her parents in Illinois. The children’s father was incarcerated for life, making finances difficult, so when Michelle received a job offer in California she jumped at it. Michelle and her three children moved to start a new life, far from and free of the conflict she had grown up amidst.
Unfortunately, Michelle quickly found herself in a compromised situation: her new job fell through and her car was stolen. She was offered another position with the same company, but it would require another move — this time to Arizona. Michelle took the job and immediately began looking for housing. Although it was not her ideal option, she asked for her parents for help with caring for the children during the transition. They agreed to take the kids in for a month and Michelle kept in daily contact. However, when Michelle returned to pick up her children once she was settled, she was blindsided by a startling challenge.
The Abduction & The Search
The day before, Michelle’s father had called Child Protective Services and falsely claimed that Michelle had hit her children. Michelle immediately disputed this with the CPS case worker and within days, Michelle’s father admitted to making up the charges. The case worker ordered Michelle’s parents to return the children but they refused to return the boys, instead bringing Michelle only her daughter, Trisha. Before Michelle could request legal assistance in retrieving her sons, she learned that her parents had taken off with the boys. Their house and two dogs had been abandoned, and the semi-truck her father drove for a living was gone.
Michelle contacted the police, but was told her sons could not be considered missing because they were with their grandparents. She asked the police to press kidnapping charges, but they deferred to the district attorney. It took weeks for Michelle to get in contact with the DA’s office. Nearly a month passed before the DA finally informed Michelle that they were considering pressing charges. At this time they also told her that she needed to file a missing person’s report with the police if she wanted help in locating the boys — a request she had already made to the police. Michelle was starting to lose hope. That’s when she called Child Find of America.
“I don’t know why this is so difficult,” she said. “My parents have no custodial rights to my children!”
For the next 2 months, Child Find worked Michelle’s case on a daily basis. We first reached out to the district attorney, seeking clarification on case status. As a result, charges were filed for parental kidnapping, but no arrest warrant was issued. Instead, Michelle’s parents were summoned to appear in court in 3 months for the offense. We continued to help Michelle seek clarity on law enforcement’s response through a series of calls and emails to the town, city, and state police as well as the DA’s office.
As advocacy efforts with law enforcement were underway, our location staff issued a missing child poster for David and Darnell. Since their grandfather was a trucker by trade, we shared posters of the children and their grandparents with trucking agencies across the country. Michelle was not only desperately concerned for her children, but she was also feeling betrayed by her own parents. In response, we connected her with TEAM HOPE, a program for ongoing peer support from parents who are also dealing with missing child crises.
Through Michelle’s persistence and in conjunction with our case work, she was finally assigned a detective dedicated to her case. Efforts quickly narrowed and intensified once the officer was able to identify the grandfather’s employer, who disclosed helpful information. Within 24 hours, the detective, in coordination with state police, was able to pinpoint the truck’s location — 2000 miles away in Washington! Washington state police successfully intercepted the truck and took David and Darnell into protective custody, placing them in temporary foster care.
While this development was an enormous relief for Michelle, this situation presented a new challenge: paying for travel expenses to reunite with her sons in Washington. However, we coordinated with a program offered through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and managed to secure Michelle a flight to Washington for the very next day.
Michelle reported that the reunion was wonderful. When the boys saw her, they initially feared they were being taken back to live in the truck where their grandparents had been keeping them. Once Michelle reassured them that they were in fact going to live with her and Trisha in their own home, with their own bedrooms, their fear turned to joy.
After the boys returned home, we helped Michelle guide her children through the healing process. Michelle shared that her daughter had some difficulties adjusting; she was happy to see her brothers again, but seemed to be affected by the sudden changes. We discussed with Michelle the various ways that abduction can impact a family, especially left-behind siblings, and shared mental health resources for the whole family. Michelle said that one of the first things David shared in a family counseling session was in reference to his grandpa: “I thought only strangers kidnapped children.”
In her last email, Michelle told us that she is working securely in her new job and the kids are happy and in school, where they are receiving additional support from the school social worker. Michelle ended her email in gratitude:
“Thank you again for all of your help and efforts in reuniting my family. You are amazing and I hope that you continue to go above and beyond for the next person as you did for me!!!”