Saturday, January 13, 2007

The return of the missing: two kidnapped boys found

This is the sort of story that can easily make any parent's--or nearly any human being's--eyes mist up. I know it did mine.

One of the worst things on earth to imagine--and, fortunately, for most parents, it's an event that remains in the realm of imagination--is the disappearance of a child. For the Akers, 15-year old Shawn Hornbeck's family, it's been a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, four-year struggle in which they've dedicated their lives to finding their kidnapped son, and to other missing children. And now their faith, hope, prayers, and work have been rewarded.

For 13-year old Ben Ownby's family, it was "only" a week of suffering. A week that probably lasted twenty lifetimes, all of them bad.

Amidst the joy, one caveat: the reentry, especially for Hornbeck, will probably not be smooth. I am reminded of another story, that of Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped in the early '70s at the age of seven (much younger than these boys) by a pedophile, and kept for over seven years.

Stayner's captor used sophisticated methods of "re-education" on him, convincing the boy that his parents had forgotten about him and didn't want him back, sexually abusing him, and encouraging him to regard him as his new father. Stayner was only found when his kidnapper hauled in new prey, a young child for whom Stayner developed a feeling of compassionate protectiveness. He planned to guide the boy to a police station, but the child was fearful and wanted Stayner to go in with him. In doing so, Stayner himself was detained, and the entire story ended up spilling out.

But Stayner's re-entry into his joyful family was fraught with psychological problems for all concerned, some of them detailed in an unusually fine made-for-TV film entitled, "I Know My First Name Is Steven" (the words Stayner voiced to the police when he was first being interrogated.) There was a book, as well.

The problems were not surprising considering the dreadful trauma and dislocation all had endured--the fact that they had lost a young child and yet a teenager was returned to them, one who'd seen and endured things no child should ever have to face.

Stayner married young and had two children, but tragically, was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was only twenty-four. But the tragedy doesn't end there.

Decades later, his brother Cary Stayner was found guilty of the 1999 murders of four women in Yosemite National Park, where Cary worked at the time. The vicious murders had gripped the nation, and I was glad to hear the news that the killer had been found. But when I heard the perpetrator's identity, I couldn't help but think of Stayner's parents as well, who had emerged from one long nightmare only to enter another, and then another.

It is highly unlikely that the present case will lead to anything remotely like that. I make no excuses for serial murderers, but one still wonders just how much the kidnapping of his brother and the family trauma affected the elder Stayner boy. It certainly is not the case that something like that causes a person to become serial murderer; that much is certain. But it is also true that those who kidnap children harm far more people than those children themselves. They set up a ripple effect with a long reach.

But today is a day of rejoicing. And I add my hopes that these two kidnapped boys have a smooth and relatively trouble-free re-entry into their families, and that they all resume their lives so that this incident fades away into distant memory, except for the added preciousness it gives the rest of their days together.

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