Certain gifts are almost too valuable for words. Knowing your children are safe is probably at the top of the list for most parents. For Lovell resident Paul Heron, being reunited with his three daughters following their illegal abduction by his ex-wife is the greatest gift of all.
Heron, the custodial parent of three girls, recently had his children returned to him after his ex-wife, the non-custodial parent of the children, failed to return them following a planned visitation. Heron worked tirelessly for three long months to find the girls, which included 4-year-old twins and an 8-year-old. With the help of a number of agencies he was able to track his ex-wife’s movements across the country through Sidney, Neb., Smithfield, R.I. and to Putnum, Conn., where his ex-wife allegedly cut and dyed the children’s hair, had them change their names and hid them from authorities.
Heron’s ordeal began on July 25. He said he went to pick up the girls on a prearranged date, time and location, only to be told the mother had disappeared with the children. That began a three-month ordeal for Heron, who vowed never to give up until he was reunited with his children.
Heron said he spent numerous hours on the phone determined to find help with his situation. At times he talked to people who just didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, while at other times he found people, who were not only very understanding, but willing to do everything in their power to aid him in his search.
With the help of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Polly Klaas Foundation, law enforcement and many others, Heron was able to track down his ex-wife as she paid for groceries during her cross-country trek with an electronic benefits food card.
Heron had already learned through the U.S. Homeland Security office that attempts had already been made to illegally take the children out of the country. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Heron hired a private detective to trace his ex-wife’s steps. With the information gathered through the private detective, U.S. Marshals and local police were able to find the mother and children hiding in a small apartment in Putnam, Conn. The mother, was arrested on fugitive charges and a felony warrant on three counts of “custodial interference.” The children were taken into custody by the Department of Family Services and reunited later that same day with their father. According to Paul Heron, his ex-wife is scheduled to go before the judge in the State of Utah on the allegations this week. She has also filed a petition to resume custody of the children, which he plans to counter.
According to Robert Lowery, Vice President at the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, illegal abductions by non-custodial relatives are the most common type of case his organization sees. He said the organization takes these cases very seriously, as the children are often in danger of both physical and emotional abuse.
He said finding missing children in three months, as was the case with the Heron children, is a relatively short period of time compared to other cases he has seen. Lowery oversees the division that helps find missing children.
“In some cases we’ve had people hide children, give them new identities and put them in the position where they are convinced they have to assume a new identity because their lives are in peril,” said Lowery. “It can take years to find them under those circumstances, but we persevere and we work with the public to find them.”
Lowery said the organization uses its ability to engage the public by sharing images of the children through its nationwide network.
“We ask the public to be the eyes and ears for law enforcement,” said Lowery. “We work as partners with law enforcement. In this particular case, we were able to get help from the U.S. Marshal’s office and we were able to track down the mother and the children. We’re grateful the children were found quickly and are back where they need to be.”
Heron said he felt at times during his search that some people didn’t see the urgency of the situation since the children were with their mother, a natural parent.
“It’s a natural inclination for people to assume that just because the children are with a natural parent, though not the custodial parent, they are safe,” explained Lowery. “That is not always the case. The children are usually suffering, if from nothing else, from isolation, educational neglect and being lied to about the custodial parent. That’s why when the children are found it is very confusing for them and hard for them to understand what is going on.
“When they’re returned to the custodial parent, we have professionals involved in that process to help the children understand why they were taken and some of the things they may have gone through. We want the reunification with the custodial parent to go smoothly because it’s very helpful to the children and the parent. Having someone else involved with the transition helps with the process.”
Heron said he and the girls are already participating in therapy to recover from their ordeal.
“In most cases, adducted children have been forced to live in isolation,” said Lowery. “They’re not allowed to do things normal children do, like have friends, interact with others or go to school. They have their names changed and sometimes they’ve been convinced that something terrible has happened or is going to happen. More often than not, they have been told their custodial parent is deceased or no longer wants them. The children are told things that are not only untrue, but very harmful to their psychological well-being. This is why we take these cases very seriously here at the Center.”
Lowery said the Center has worked on more than 20,000 cases of child abductions in this year alone. More often than not, the abduction was by a non-custodial parent. Lowery said oftentimes there is retaliation involved and the children are used as pawns to hurt the parent who has custody.
“Though we don’t see every missing child case, we do see all of the amber alert cases,” explained Lowery. “We make our services available to any (custodial) parent who lets us know their child is missing. We work every day with law enforcement to find missing children and the good news is today most children are found and returned home, though we do have some sad tragedies.”
Lowery said the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database accepts about 450,000 cases involving missing children every year. He said, though some of those cases are short term or repeat cases like runaways, there are a significant number of children that go missing every year. He said his organization treats every case as if the child is in danger.
“Most are found and we’re doing a much better job of finding them today than in the past,” said Lowery. “In 1984, when we first opened our doors, we found only about 62 percent of the children. Today it’s more like 98 to 99 percent.”
Lowery said social media has been a great help to his staff in getting out the word when children are missing.
“Social media has been a huge game-changer and technology in general has helped with our ability to communicate in real time with the public,” said Lowery. “The ability of smart phones and other cell phone technology has helped a lot, too. The fact that we have cameras on many of our street corners has also been a great help. The technology we have today has all been invaluable in helping us find many more children than we have been able to find in the past.”
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) is a private, non-profit organization, established in 1984. The formation of the Center was spurred by notable child abductions, like the 1979 abduction of 6-year-old Etan Patz from New York City and the 1981 abduction and murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Fla. The organization offers help finding missing children through its 24-hour toll-free missing children’s hotline 1-800-thelost.
By Patti Carpenter