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
The Smarts' persistence, even when Elizabeth's search was pushed off the frontpage, triggered the events that led to her recovery. Last month, the Smarts announced a new reward for information in the case and asked the public for help in their search for "Emmanuel," a former handyman who had worked for them.
They did not at the time know his full name, but they released a sketch of the man, saying Elizabeth's 9-year-old sister Mary Katherine — who witnessed the abduction — had just identified Emmanuel as bearing some resemblance to the kidnapper.
After the Smarts' press conference, Mitchell's sister called authorities with his identity and his stepson gave investigators photos and said his stepfather was "capable" of kidnapping a child. That led to Mitchell being featured on America's Most Wanted last weekend and the subsequent phone tips that led to his arrest.
Still, critics argue that wealth and media savvy should not determine which missing children cases get attention.
"I am happy and overjoyed that Elizabeth Smart has been recovered. This story defines how important it is for the national media to cover these types of stories and the importance of keeping hope alive," said Alonzo Washington, an independent comic book artist and Missouri activist who has championed the causes of lesser-known missing children.
"Danielle van Dam, Samantha Runnion and Elizabeth Smart received enormous amounts of national and international media attention and all of the children where recovered, two with tragic circumstances and one with positive results," he said.
"America's forgotten children [Precious Doe, Rilya Wilson, Teekah Lewis, Brittany Williams, Alexis Patterson, Jahi Turner, Diamond and Tionda Bradley] deserve national coverage and to be recovered as well," Washington continued. "African-American children are missing and the national media are not covering these stories. … I am extremely happy for the Smart family today. However, I am truly saddened that the national media does not value blacks' kids in the same manner."
Push for a National Amber Alert
Ed Smart acknowledged that not all parents of missing children have the means or opportunities to command the media spotlight he did, and has urged Congress to pass legislation for a nationwide Amber Alert system, which would alert communities to kidnappings within hours after they happen.
"Not everyone gets the media attention that we did," a tearful Smart said Wednesday night after his daughter was found. "Amber Alert cannot be held ransom [in Congress]. Bring it forward; there is no excuse. The Amber Alert needs to pass and it needs to pass now. We can't wait another day because there are hundreds of children kidnapped."
The Amber Alert system is named after Amber Hagerman, a little girl who was kidnapped while riding her bike around her Arlington,Texas, neighborhood in 1996. She was found dead four days later. There are 38 statewide Amber plans operating throughout the country. Back in October, President Bush announced his plan to put federal money and muscle behind Amber Alert systems across the nation. Bush announced that $10 million in federal money for training and equipment to be distributed to communities using the Emergency Alert System to inform residents of kidnappings.
Congress has since been considering nationwide Amber Alert legislation that would create a nationwide Amber Alert program. It passed in the Senate, but has failed to pass in the House.
As lawmakers continue to wrangle over the Amber Alert bill, Chicago police continue to have officers work full-time on the search for Tionda and Diamond Bradley. Police spokesman Bayless says investigators at the command post devoted to the case occasionally get help from the cold case squad.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Smart has given Alonzo Washington new motivation to help gather attention for "forgotten" missing children. He has used his comic books, trading cards and line of action figures to bring attention to Jahi Turner, Alexis Patterson, Rilya Wilson and Precious Doe and plans to do so again with another comic book and comic strip on his Web site in May for National Missing Child Day.
"Many in the national media say that Elizabeth Smart's story fell off the national media's radar," he said. "America's forgotten children never made it to the national media's radar."