While Elizabeth Smart and her family are enjoying their reunion, many other parents of missing children are waiting to embrace that same miracle — as unlikely as it may be.
Law enforcement officials and child kidnapping experts were amazed Sandy City police in Utah found Elizabeth alive nine months after her abduction. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reports that most children are killed if they are not found within 48 hours after their abduction.
But the Elizabeth Smart case has been different from other missing children cases from the start. The details of her abduction were stunning — taken at knifepoint from her own bedroom in front of her little sister — and it garnered intense media attention. Most missing children get no notice in the press.
But arguably, police would not have been able to find Elizabeth — and Brian David Mitchell, the homeless street prophet who was wanted for questioning and is now a suspect in her kidnapping — without all the attention the case attracted from the very beginning.
And children who disappeared before Elizabeth, but who are not household names, remain missing with little fanfare. Tionda and Diamond Bradley, ages 10 and 3, have not been seen since July 6, 2001, when their mother went to work, and police have few new leads. The disappearance of 2-year-old Jahi Turner has baffled San Diego police since April 2002. And in Milwaukee, Alexis Patterson has not been seen since she disappeared while on her way to school last May.
And there are countless others. Smart's recovery gives law enforcement and child activists a glimmer of hope that other children will be found and reunited with their families, no matter how long they have been missing.
"I have long said that this case [the disappearance of Tionda and Diamond Bradley] is just a matter of one phone call, somebody remembering something, just like in the Elizabeth Smart case," said Dave Bayless, spokesman for the Chicago Police Department. "It's just a matter of one person seeing something and making that call that will lead us to where these girls are and bring them home safely to their family."
The Need for Media and Media Savvy
However, triggering someone's memory and enabling the public to look for clues entails a media blitz, and the Smart family was able to orchestrate a campaign from the start. Following the abduction last June, hardly a day passed during the summer when the major cable news channels and other media didn't cover briefings held by the Salt Lake City police or the Smart family, led by Elizabeth's father Ed.
The Smarts, an attractive upper middle-class Mormon family, were able to hire a family spokeperson and had the savvy to command media attention. They never appeared to shy away from the camera, and seemed to realize early on that the better they came across on camera, the more attention they would generate. And more attention meant the possibility of more leads in the case.
"In an odd and disturbing way, it almost seems like parents do have to go through a kind of screen test when they first get their story across," said Robert Thompson, professor of media studies at Syracuse University in a previous interview. "In borderline cases, their story has to come across compelling enough to raise it from a local level to a national-level story."
Missing and Neglected