Reuniting Children with Families After Abduction Two kidnapped boys found last week in Missouri are back home, and like Elizabeth Smart four years ago, they will be psychologically affected by the abduction. Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, director of Family Advocacy Division for the Center of Missing and Exploited Children, explains the challenges of reuniting children with families after an abduction.

Reuniting Children with Families After Abduction

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Michael Devlin, the man who allegedly abducted two boys in Missouri, pleaded not guilty on kidnapping charges in court today. Four days after 13-year-old Ben Ownby went missing, he was found in Devlin's apartment along with 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who had been missing for four years.

While hundreds of thousands of children are abducted in this country every year, in many cases the culprit is a parent or another family member. Kidnapping by strangers is relatively rare, but no matter who's responsible, abduction traumatizes the child. As you might expect, the longer they're gone, the more difficult reunion becomes. Fear, guilt and confusion are just part of the problem.

Today we're going to talk with a family that faced that challenge. We'll also hear from a counselor who works with recovered children and families. Later in the show, we begin an experiment with The Motley Fool. We're going to invest 10,000 imaginary dollars in an imaginary stock portfolio. So if you have suggestions about what principles we should follow or what stocks to buy, send us an e-mail:

But first, surviving abduction. If you have experience with this as a parent, friend, police officer, if you have questions about the process of reunion, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us:

And we begin with Abby and Sam, who've asked us to use just their first names. On a warm summer afternoon in 1997, Sam, then 10 years old, didn't show up at his bus stop. For nearly a year, his mother Abby had no idea where he was. Sam had been abducted by his father and spent eight-and-a-half months on the run from New Jersey to Texas, where the FBI helped to reunite mother and son.

Abby and Sam, now 19 years old, join us today from the studios of WRTI in Philadelphia. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. ABBY (Mother of Abducted Son; Program Manager, Project Hope): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Sam, I know it was your dad who abducted you. Did you understand what was happening at the time? Were you scared?

Mr. SAM (Abducted by Father): Well, I wasn't scared at the time. I was 10 years old. I didn't understand completely what was going on because it was my dad. I thought everything was okay because he was my father and I trusted him. But after about four months, I would say, I started to realize that this definitely was not right.

CONAN: What tipped you off?

SAM: Just because I wasn't allowed to do what I had been doing my whole life. I wasn't in school. I was isolated in our apartment when we were in California. I wasn't allowed to make friends or talk about who I really was. I had a different identity, a different name. I had to lie a lot, and that's when I knew.

CONAN: And that's when you knew that finally… And when you figured it out, how did you feel?

SAM: It was hard. I would say around 10 years old, that's when a kid's finally coming to understand what reality their life is. And for me to have my father, who - your parents are who you trust more than anyone growing up. They're your rock. That's who you know cares about you. To have him take me from that and make me change was really difficult.

CONAN: And Abby, we're asking Sam the questions. At the same time, you must've been going through hell.

ABBY: Yes, it was extremely difficult, very frightening.

CONAN: Is there any relief to it when your child is missing for an extended period of time?

Mr. ABBY: No, there's no relief at all because you have no idea where they are. As a parent, your most important job is to protect your child, make sure they're safe, that they have food, clothing, a place to live. I didn't know anything about where Sam was, if he was all right, how his emotional well-being or his physical well-being was, and it was extremely frightening all the time.

CONAN: And there must have been tremendous anger, as well. You had to suspect who was responsible here.

ABBY: I was trying not to think about my anger and really work towards trying to find him. That was my main concentration.

CONAN: Sam, on your part, once you figured it out, again, there must have been some anger involved?

SAM: I would say it was more confusion than anger. Once I did get a grasp on what was going on, I thought that I may be at fault, also, as well as with my dad. I'm 10 years old. I don't understand that much about the law or too much about morals. So I'm trying to debate on whether I need to stay and try to make this work or whether I should go with how I'm feeling and go back to what I miss.

CONAN: Abby, what was it like when finally you were reunited?

ABBY: It was like a rebirth. It was - it's hard to put something like that in words. When you're living a parent's worst nightmare of not knowing where your child is, and then they're recovered and run into your arms, it's just a euphoric feeling, but it's also bittersweet because as parents know, it's just a step into the next phase of recovery and healing.

CONAN: It's the beginning of a long journey, isn't it?

ABBY: Exactly.

CONAN: Is that journey over for you two?

ABBY: For the most part it is, for the most part, but I think that there are issues that we're both going to deal with for maybe the rest of our lives.

SAM: I would say something like that makes you what you are. It changes the way you look at things, and it's going to stay with you forever. We have come to terms with some issues. We've worked through a lot of things, but it's going to stay with us forever.

CONAN: If you have questions for Abby and Sam about their experience, if you've had a similar experience of your own, give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail us:

And joining us now is Marcia Gilmer-Tullis. She's director of the family advocacy division for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She's here with us in Studio 3A, and it's very kind of you to join us today.

Ms. MARCIA GILMER-TULLIS (Director, Family Advocacy Division, Center for Missing and Exploited Children): Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: You've worked with a lot of abducted children in the past, and I wonder, the feelings that Sam was talking about, particularly the guilt, did he play a part in this, is that common with abducted children?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Neal, it's extremely common. Now, a lot of people think that if a child is taken by another parent, that everything is okay and that they're going to feel okay about the situation that they find themselves in. But you've got a child that's really in the middle. You've got a child that's looking back at their parent that they no longer are with. With a parent that has taken them, they are very, very confused. And when they are recovered, a lot of times there's lots of guilt.

CONAN: Guilt over betraying one parent, over loving the one who's - it's just all over the place.

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Because they're - as Sam mentioned, there is so much confusion. And they think well, perhaps I needed to call my mom, perhaps I needed to call my dad. So there's guilt associated with all of that.

CONAN: And the confusion - in some cases, there is - apparently not in Sam's case - there's also fear.

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: There can be fear because you've been taken from something that you've very, very comfortable with - an environment in which you're very comfortable, to an environment that you know nothing about. You're taken away from your friends, from school, from other family members, and you're having to readjust to a totally new situation.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. Again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is, and we'll begin with Marjorie(ph), Marjorie's calling us from San Francisco.

MARJORIE (Caller): Yes, hi. I was wondering, I know with the two boys that were just recovered in Missouri, that they - the counselors and the family are waiting to actually talk to them about what might have happened to them during their captivity. And is there a risk in that situation that they may actually sort of repress what happened and never really, you know, get to the truth if they wait too long?

CONAN: Marcia?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Yes. That's why it's really important that they are connected to appropriate treatment professionals and they will be. And the likelihood of them being able to discuss what occurred to them should reveal itself. And after that is revealed, then those treatment professionals will be able to act, to be able to move them forward in a positive manner and to be able to help a family move forward as well.

CONAN: Sam, how long was it before you were asked to talk about it?

SAM (Abducted by Father at Age 10): Well my mom helped me a lot. She was really fair about it. I was meeting with the counselor when I first got back. It didn't work out as well as we would have liked it to. But it did take me a while to speak with my mom. I didn't want to speak with counselors or people I didn't know. But I feel as though I was given my own time to work it out, and in my case I felt that worked very well.

CONAN: Were the police involved? Did they have questions for you?

SAM: Yeah they were. The day that I was found in Texas - in Alvin, Texas - I was questioned at the local police station. And that was very difficult because I had no idea what was going on, what was going to happen to me, my dad, what was going on with my mom. So that was very scary, that part.

CONAN: Did you ever have to end up testifying against your dad.

SAM: No, no, not in court or anything like that.

CONAN: Which I assume you'd prefer not to.

SAM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: I wonder, Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, as - is it common - I mean, the police have to ask questions. They have to pursue their investigations, particularly if they want to bring charges. So, you know, in a lot of big places I assume that they have trained counselors for this, but in a lot places they don't.

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Yes, and what we do - we get calls regularly from law enforcement actually asking what is the best way for us to be able to intervene in a situation like this when we have located a child and are recovering a child. And the kinds of things that we tell law enforcement is that it's really important that they not, shall we say, arrest the offending parent in front of the child. We don't want to see - have the child see that the parent is being handcuffed and led away.

We do want to have other counselors and individuals that can take the child to the side, begin to - to talk with them about - not necessarily about what is happening with that parent at the time, but that they are going to be seeing their mom or their dad, and that everything is going to be okay. We want to encourage law enforcement to reassure the child in every opportunity.

CONAN: And just quickly to Marjorie's point, is there a danger of children forgetting important elements of the things that happen to them?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: I think that can be true with adults as well. When you have experienced a certain type of trauma, absolutely there are going to be those things that you will forget immediately but recall later.

CONAN: Marjorie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. If you'd like to join our conversation, it's 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is abduction. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that they've helped reunite more than 100,000 abducted children with their families. Today we're talking about the trauma of abduction and how kids cope after they return home. Our guests are Abby and Sam, they are mother and son and have asked that we only identify them by their first name. When he was 10 years old, Sam was abducted by his father. Also with us, Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, Director of Family Advocacy Division for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And we'd like to hear from you. If you have experience with this as a parent, friend, police officer, if you have questions about the process of reunion, give us a call at 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

And Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, what are some of the characteristics of an abductor?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Oh my goodness. And there are characteristics of individuals that do abduct their children. A study commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2001 actually looked at who some of these individuals were. Now some of them are individuals that really believe that perhaps the other parent is doing something to harm the child and they adamantly believe that and feel that the system is not doing what they should do to protect the child. You have those individuals that have made threats that they will indeed abduct the child and will just act to carry that out. You have those individuals that suffer from some form of mental illness and will feel that they have the right to take the child.

You have those individuals also that may be ending a marriage of a different - you know, from different countries and what have you and the child is important to that offending parent and must leave. They feel they must take the child out of the - out of the U.S. You also have those individuals that somewhat feel disenfranchised by the legal system, you know, if you will - individuals that perhaps may be - may be victims of domestic violence and perhaps the system hasn't done what it should do for them; individuals that are just uncomfortable with systems, period, perhaps some of those individuals that are from communities where they feel that they're not going to get a fair shake.

So you have different types of personalities of individuals that will take their children. One of the - one of the key components that they all possess, however, is that it's a way to get back at that - at the other parent. It really has very little to do with the child and what the needs of the child are.

CONAN: What's the recovery rate?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Recovery rate for family abduction cases is very - is very high. Most of the children that are abducted by a parent are fortunately recovered within the first week, or certainly within the first month. We do have, however, cases where children have been gone for significant periods of time. And I will tell you that it really matters little the length of time that some of these children are gone. Many of them will still come back confused, concerned, as Sam was, and many of them come back not really sure that the parent that has custody of them is the parent that they feel they want to be with.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And we'll go to Jasper(ph). Jasper's calling us from Reno, Nevada.

JASPER (Caller): Hello, I'm doing fine. I'd like to ask the young man, Sam, a question.

CONAN: Sure.

JASPER: Did you ever feel - have a threat of punishment from your father that if you ever slipped up and kind of accidentally let something out that people shouldn't know that you'd somehow get punished for it?

SAM: Actually no. I feel as though I'm one of the lucky cases where I wasn't being threatened with violence…

JASPER: Uh huh.

SAM:…which most - I shouldn't say most - but I've heard stories of many kids that are. But just that fear of - and confusion of - not understanding what was going on. People think, you know, 10 years old you - I could leave in a whim, but I'm on the other side of the country. I don't know my surroundings. So I felt as though instead of violence I was being threatened by that, as not knowing what would happen if I would leave.

JASPER: Did your father tell you anything to try and intensely alienate you from your mother as far as reasons why he abducted you?

SAM: For reasons why that he abducted me, he said that he couldn't afford child support and my mom was making it very hard for him, and I only saw him four times a month. And the only thing I ever did with him was fun things: sporting events, he'd buy me everything. So naturally, a 10-year-old is going to like that more. So…

CONAN: Than the parent who every once in a while has to say no.

SAM: Right. Exactly. My mom has to send me to school.

CONAN: Yeah.

SAM: But while we were on the road, he told me if we did go back and I did go back to my mom that he would go to jail, and I suppose - No I didn't.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that. Here's an e-mail we got from Brett in Oklahoma. What about female abductors, primarily mothers, who are even aided by very active underground organizations? What about the general societal concept that if a child is with his or her mother they cannot possibly be the victims of abduction even though they, too, have been taken away from their custodial father, friends, family, etc. I'm hearing a preponderance of discussion about fathers or men who abduct. Marcia?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Well there are indeed women and mothers that abduct. And again, the Department of Justice study back in 1999, we know that there were 44 percent of family-abducted children were younger than age six. 53 percent were abducted by the biological father, and 25 percent were abducted by the biological mother. So there does tend to be for many people the sense that if a mother takes a child that that is all right. And of course, that is not all right either. We don't want to see children taken by either parent.

CONAN: Of course not. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Michael. Michael's with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello


MICHAEL: Thanks for taking the question. Actually this relates exactly to what your guest was just saying. In Illinois law, the mother pretty much has all rights. I had joint custody and when she got mad at me she took my son away. That was ten years ago. Went to the courts and the judge said, well, in Illinois law that's the way it is. You're on your own. You have to find her yourself. Is there any comment from your guest about what happens when the law doesn't help - doesn't - isn't under obligation to help.

CONAN: Marcia Gilmer-Tullis?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Well actually I'm really sorry that that happened to you, but the truth of the matter is, is that both parents certainly have - are to have access to their child. And there are systems in place and I would - I would like to think that back then there were systems in place that could have assisted you in being able to have access to your child; to be able to have visitation, to be able to have some kind of relationship with your children. Law enforcement may have been assistance to you. Perhaps other individuals of other legal professionals. Certainly - well, it sounds like they could have been a help to you as well, but that's not normally what we see happening in these kinds of cases.

Oftentimes parents do become disillusioned and very depressed over the prospects of what they do hear initially, and may not continue to move forward in a way to be able to have access to the child.

MICHAEL: If I can, one more thing. What happened was - in Illinois, child support is such that it's automatic for the woman, for the mother, but if you get joint custody, the lawyers - the state still is obligation to provide a lawyer for the mother in all cases - in every case that goes into court. So the father never has a lawyer. He always has to pay for it himself, but the mother has a continuing lawyer.

CONAN: So it sounds like you just feel the whole system is stacked against you.

MICHAEL: It's stacked against the father.

CONAN: Yeah, is that a fair assessment, do you think?

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Well, what I would like to say to the caller: You know, I would love for you to contact, you know, our agency. We of have - we have publications that may be of some help to you. You can go to and look at some of those publications that we have. You can contact our 800 number at 1-800-843-5678 and ask to be able to talk with someone about your particular situation. Perhaps we can - we can assist you or perhaps direct you in a way so that you can at least have the ability to have some type of relationship with your child.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much and we wish you the best of luck.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Let me ask you, Abby - Marcia was just talking about depression and I'm sure you went through that. Did you ever give up?

ABBY: No, I never gave up. I continually tried and that was actually what helped me get through the experience. Was the - it helped empower me. The more I tried that was gave me hope that I would find him one day.

CONAN: Let's talk with Laurie. Laurie is on the line with us from Lincoln in - Lincoln, Nebraska?

LAURIE (Caller): No. From Arlington, Massachusetts.

CONAN: Ah, okay. There you go. That's why - they had a hard time typing it. We didn't have our Boston girl on the switchboard. Go ahead, please.

LAURIE: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm wondering what was the turning point for Sam in the healing process? And I will get off the phone and…

CONAN: Okay, Laurie.

LAURIE: …and listen to the answer.

CONAN: Thanks, Laurie.

SAM: It was - I can't put my actual finger on what the turning point was. It would have to be a couple of events. I would say being able to build a strong relationship with my mom. That helps a lot. Once I came home with that fear of not knowing what was going to happen to me and if my mom still cared about me.

To be able to find out and accept over time that she worked so hard to find me and loved me so much, and that this is where I belong. I would say, once I realized that, that would be closest to a turning point.

CONAN: We're speaking with Abby and Sam. Sam was abducted by his father when he was ten years old, and his mother Abby, of course, kept the light burning for him until the search was finally successful. Also with us is Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, director of family advocacy division of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And I wanted to ask you, Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, obviously this Missouri case has been attended by tremendous publicity - reminiscent of the Elizabeth Smart case not so long ago. How much does that complicate things? I mean you got reporters asking questions as well as counselors and police officers and district attorneys.

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Well, it can complicate the situation only to the fact that, to the point that the families, you know, really have a difficult time, you know, not, sort of - not getting away from the press but having to deal with so many of the questions that are coming their way.

What we would hope is that after a period of time when the families - when some of the dust has settled - that these families will be able to take the time that they need, you know, in a private way. And then they can, again, working with their treatment professionals, be able to do the kind of work that's going to be needed in order move their families both ahead.

CONAN: Abby, I understand in your case that there was also some publicity and interest from the media.

ABBY: Yes there was. Actually when Sam was recovered - I was in New Jersey and he was recovered in Texas. And I took the next plane to Texas to recover him after he was located. And when I got off the plane into the terminal it was full of press. The lights were so bright I couldn't even see anything. All of the sudden Sam ran into my arms and it was just, it was very intrusive to have the media there.

Because what we really needed was to have that private moment together. Because as Sam said, he was really frightened and he didn't know what to expect. He didn't know what my state of mind was and how I was feeling about him. So really that really needs to be something personal and private.

CONAN: Yeah. Sam, that must've been bizarre?

SAM: Yeah it was. I mean as a 10-year-old seeing all those news stations and the media was cool for me. I thought I was important. But, yeah, the whole process of me being recovered, and I would say for any child, is just you have no idea of what's going on. You're in between the two worlds that you were, that you know from, with my mom and from me being with my dad away from my mom.

So that time in between the transition, I would say, is a really important time for just family.

CONAN: You were an important person. Your mother told you so I'm sure.

SAM: Many times.

CONAN: Many times. Let's see if we can go to Don. Don's with us from Kansas City.

DON (Caller): Hi. I was kidnapped by my father when I was three-and-a-half. This was like 1954. I also had a brother that was a year old and a sister that was two-and-a-half years younger. She was like a year. And we were taken to Canada and hid out on the woods. And for six or eight months, my father and his mother - my grandmother - brainwashed us about how horrible my mother was. And, you know, would tell stories about the country mouse and the city mouse. Everything was great in the country, everything was horrible in the city. Of course they lived in the country and we lived in Kansas City, in the city.

And, you know, even as going so far as to, you know, anti-Semitic stuff. That the Jews killed Christ and all kinds of just twisted stuff. And the comment I wanted to make is that an experience like that definitely stays with you your whole life. I'm 55 now and I didn't even realize I had a problem with it until I was probably 24, 25.

CONAN: Did you get help then?

DON: Oh yeah. It's for, you know, ongoing for probably 10 or 11 years before I could finally, in a sense, forgive my father. I mean to forgive is to like love as you loved before. Is don't think I can ever love him like I did prior to that incident. But there's been healing with that.

And some of the symptoms of the problems of confusion, deep-set fear and deep-set feelings of being a piece of trash. I mean that's basically what it is. You know, there is a way out and it's only with help, with other people who have been through those experiences.

So it takes a long time. And, but even, you know, now my voice is shaking a little bit. And, you know, the feelings can come up if I think about it or…

CONAN: Don, we have to go. We wanted to thank you very much for the phone call thought. We appreciate it.

DON: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Sam and Abby, I can't thank you enough for joining us today and sharing your story.

ABBY: Thank you for the opportunity.

SAM: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: And good luck to you too. And Marcia Gilmer-Tullis, thank you very much for being with us. She joined us here in Studio 3A…

Ms. GILMER-TULLIS: Thank you.

CONAN: …from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

When we come back, imaginary money with the Motley Fool. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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