Sheryl was in counseling 3000 miles from home, feeling utterly hopeless and telling the social worker that she’d decided to give up, go home, and just hope that her son, Zac might be found and returned to her. At that very moment, her cell phone rang, and a representative of the LAPD was telling her that they had found and picked up 10-year-old Zac, and her ex-husband, James, was being taken into police custody. Sheryl recalled, “We all did a little jig.”
The summer before, Sheryl had given in to her ex-husband’s pleas to see his son again and sent Zac to visit his dad. Sheryl had full custody of the child and James had no visitation rights. There was a history of domestic violence and current orders of protection, but Sheryl believed James when he promised that he had changed. Sheryl sent Zac to Los Angeles in June 2009, expecting that he would return in September in time for the new school year, after having a summer forging bonds with his father.
James asked Sheryl if Zac might be enrolled in school, since their school year began earlier. This way, Zac would be able to stay on top of the material taught at his grade level before he was to return to mom in the beginning of September. Mom agreed, and sent the necessary paperwork for James to enroll Zac in school.
Soon after, James notified Sheryl that he would not be returning Zac. As the weeks passed, Sheryl’s efforts to get her son back reaped little more than frustration and fear about Zac’s well-being. Sheryl could not understand why James would refuse to return their son to his home in Portland.
Sheryl called Child Find of America in March 2010. At that point, she been to court several times and was corresponding with the courts in California. Sheryl spoke to a Child Find caseworker about the court procedures in Maine and in California. Initially, plans were discussed concerning Sheryl working with Zac’s school and to have police assistance.
In subsequent phone calls, Sheryl gave her caseworker permission to bring a second Child Find caseworker to the table to conference on legal issues such as criminal procedure, domesticating a custody order, enforcement of a custody order, and service of process. Sheryl said she was working on getting the funds together to be able to go to California. Her Child Find caseworkers meanwhile contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who agreed to assist Sheryl with airfare for part of the journey home with the child. Child Find also contacted another nonprofit agency that would help Sheryl with shelter and transportation once she arrived in California. Sheryl’s caseworker spoke with the California police detective assigned to the case and leads were developed by Child Find to confirm the address of Zac’s dad.
Sheryl flew to LA only to report back that Zac is not in school at that time. Sheryl would spend a frustrating week attempting to get information on her child’s whereabouts, fearing she would be returning home without her son. Meanwhile, Child Find continued to speak with the Detective in LA about locating Zac’s Dad. Sheryl gave her caseworker permission to reach out to the Dad by telephone through his family and cell phone. During the course of the discussion, James decided his primary focus should be resolving the case in court. James stated he would seek out a local attorney to represent him.
In the meantime, the police finally located James by revisiting an address they believed he had abandoned. James was packing Zac’s belongings and gathering legal papers at the time the police picked him up. At the station, James was held on misdemeanor charges, while Sheryl was notified that her son had been located and was being brought to her for reunification.
Soon after, Sheryl called Child Find, “They picked up James. I have my son back.” Sheryl was thrilled to report that Zac was following her from room to room, “Just like the other kids. I have my shadow back. My little shadow boy. It feels so good.”
Sheryl confided in her caseworker how terrible it had been for her son to be put in the position of living a lie. She told how James managed to keep Zac under control by telling him there were people who wanted to hurt him, and to hide if anyone came by. James also told Zac that his mom was responsible for the family not living together any longer. In phone calls where Sheryl would be pleading with James to return her son, James would tell Sheryl that Zac now hated her and that he didn’t want to speak with her. James told Sheryl that Zac blamed her for all their ills, and that he saw things differently. However, throughout the ordeal, Zac was able to maintain his sense of what was true and what was merely an attempt to control and manipulate, and his feelings for his mother never wavered. Sheryl said what Zac needs most now is to be able to live openly and without fear again.
Sheryl thanked Child Find for contacting James, stating she never could have made the call herself, knowing she would have gotten too upset. She also said she believed it was the contact with James that led directly to the resolution of her case. Sheryl and Zac are now home in Maine.
Sheryl expressed her gratitude for Child Find’s ongoing efforts:
“You are going to heaven. Whatever you believe in – whether you believe in that or not – it’s a sure thing that you are all going to heaven.”