On July 15, 2002, Erin Runnion’s 5-year-old daughter, Samantha, was kidnapped from her Orange County yard and murdered.
Since her daughter’s untimely death, Runnion, a Thousand Oaks native, has been an outspoken advocate of child safety and preventing crimes against children.
“The vast majority of these crimes against children can be prevented,” said Runnion, who also encourages children to learn self-defense skills through the radKIDS Personal Empowerment Safety Education Program. “The reality is that most child predators are not looking for a challenge, they’re looking for an easy opportunity. RadKIDS is the only curriculum that teaches [children] to distract and escape. It’s very hard to pick up a child if they’re poking you in the eye.”
According to the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, information from the U.S. Department of Justice showed that 797,500 children were reported missing during a one-year period of time studied, an average of 2,185 children every day.
Friday, May 25, is National Missing Children’s Day, an annual reminder of the importance of child safety and to continue efforts to find and reunite missing children with their families. The day honors the anniversary of the unsolved disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York City in 1979.
Runnion has also turned her tragedy into a public awareness campaign, which included a role as guest speaker for the National Missing Children’s Day ceremony in Washington, D.C., in 2009 and creating the not-for-profit child safety organization called The Joyful Child Foundation in memory of her daughter.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Pam Grossman, who runs Ventura County’s Child Abduction and Recovery Unit, said that she hopes people who participate in National Missing Children’s Day recognize the tremendous struggles facing parents of missing children.
“[I hope people] realize that there are parents who live every day of their life in agony, not knowing the whereabouts or the health of their missing child, and to join with them in praying for their safe and eventual return,” Grossman said.
“It’s like you’re in this limbo and you don’t know if it will ever end,” said Georgia Hilgeman-Hammond, a woman whose 13-month-old daughter disappeared from her San Jose, Calif., home in October 1976. “The agony will go on for the rest of your life. And I’ve known some people who’ve never recovered their children.”
Local investigators know that there are various circumstances when it comes to missing children — that most of the cases in the city of Ventura aren’t random acts by strangers.
“Parental abduction and runaways are the common [missing children cases] in the city of Ventura,” said Edward Caliento, a major crimes detective with the Ventura Police Department. “The majority of missing young adults, age 13 to 17, is runaways [like] teenagers dealing with family issues. I think the most important thing is to keep an open dialogue with your children.”
Advances in technology, including social media, have played a pivotal role in finding missing children.
“The world has become quite smaller due to the Internet, social media and all of the electronic tracking devices that are now available,” said Grossman. “These media services have made a significant impact on the ability to locate parentally abducted children.”
The introduction of the AMBER Alert Program in Texas in 1997 has proven to be a considerable success, too. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the AMBER Alert system has been credited with the safe return of 542 children.
In California, much of the success of the AMBER Alert Program is due to Runnion’s courageous efforts and tragic loss.
“Governor Gray Davis called the house three days after Samantha’s abduction and said, in Samantha’s honor, he would sign the AMBER Alert into [statewide] effect,” said Runnion. “That year alone, 96 children in the state of California were recovered.”
Of the nearly 800,000 children who were reported missing during the one-year survey conducted in 2002 by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 203,900 of those children were the victims of family abductions.
Hilgeman-Hammond’s waited four and a half years before she discovered that her ex-husband had abducted their child and traveled out of the country.
“I ultimately found [my daughter] living in an impoverished area of Mexico City,” said Hilgeman-Hammond. “Mexican officials helped me find her. We drove thousands of miles into the interior of Mexico. There was my daughter, asleep next to the woman she thought was her mother, and when she awoke I said in Spanish, ‘I’m your mother.’ ”
Hilgeman-Hammond was reunited with her daughter but without the help of online search engines and other tools available to parents today.
“Because of the Internet, we have so many resources,” said Hilgeman-Hammond, who was the executive director and founder of Vanished Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit organization that helped to solve 35,000 cases of missing and abducted children over the course of its 28-year run.
For more information, visit www.take25.org and www.thejoyfulchild.org.